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Analysis: Knox case shines spotlight on Italian police methods

Amanda Knox reacts after hearing the verdict during her appeal trial in Perugia
Amanda Knox reacts after hearing the verdict during her appeal trial in Perugia

By Barry Moody

(Reuters) - The overturning of the murder conviction and jail sentence against Amanda Knox has shone a spotlight on the methods of Italian police, accused of botching the investigation.

The acquittal on appeal of the American student and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito of the murder of British fellow student Meredith Kercher is largely the result of an independent forensic inquiry that left the case against them in tatters.

Knox's family, backed by a expensive publicity campaign and top lawyers, persuaded the Perugia appeal court to have the original scientific evidence reviewed by two independent experts, Carla Vecchiotti and Stefano Conti.

Their conclusions at the end of June drove a coach and horses through the police case, saying alleged DNA evidence of Kercher's blood on a kitchen knife handled by Knox and of Sollecito on the victim's bra clip was unreliable.

In a damning conclusion they said that some of the evidence could have been contaminated. "International procedures for inspection and protocols for collection and testing of the evidence were not followed," they said.

Italian media reveled on Tuesday in U.S. praise for a justice system that allowed the case to be reviewed and overthrown. A commentary in the New York Times said "Bravo for Italy" and noted that in America Knox could even have ended up executed rather than acquitted.

But there was less pride about the methods of police and the way in which the media can cover every step of a criminal case and report on leaked evidence. "Embarrassment on world TV for justice," said a headline in the Libero newspaper.

With their scientific evidence torpedoed -- a point driven home by the Knox campaign -- the Perugia prosecutors could only resort to what some called a medieval view of women. They dubbed Knox a sex-obsessed "she-devil" who had manipulated Sollecito into helping murder Kercher, while offering very little evidence to back this up.

OTHER CASES

Italy has seen other cases in which investigators appeared to have decided early on who was guilty and then tried to build a case around their suspicions -- resulting in dizzying twists and turns as different suspects were arrested and then released.

In the notorious "Monster of Florence" case, eight couples were murdered outside the central city between 1968 and 1985. Four men were at various times convicted of the grisly murders and several other suspects arrested and released. Many Italians believe the real culprit was never found.

It is said to have been the longest and most expensive criminal investigation in Italian history.

One of the prosecutors in that case, Giuliano Mignini, also won the original conviction and 26-year sentence against Knox and said on Tuesday he would appeal against her acquittal to Italy's highest appeal court.

There have been several other cases of multiple arrests or long unsolved murders that cast doubt on investigators' methods and training.

With no contempt of court protections, the names and even photographs of suspects frequently appear in newspapers long before their trials while under the Italian system public prosecutors and judges often share offices -- meaning they can easily discuss cases before they come to court.

The latter problem is something intended to be changed under a sweeping legal reform planned by the administration of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, although the reform has been discredited by suggestions that the real aim is to protect him from a string of fraud and sex cases.

PROBLEMS WITH "FIRST RESPONSE"

Luciano Garofalo, former head of the Carabinieri paramilitary police scientific squad and now a professor of forensic investigation, told Reuters that police in every country had to improve the quality of evidence collection and analysis.

He pointed to the Innocence Project in the United States which has used DNA testing to review previous convictions, resulting in the exoneration of 273 people.

"This shows that judicial errors are made all over the world and all over the world you can make mistakes," he told Reuters.

He did concede, however, that Italy may be behind some other countries in the training of first response units to a crime, be they police or emergency services, who can contaminate the scene if they follow the wrong procedures.

"We must spend more resources on this. But really it is a world problem -- the application of proper protocols at the scene of a crime.

"We must all create real experts who go to the scene of a crime and then in a laboratory do the analysis. And the laboratories must conform to the highest standards of quality," he told Reuters.

In the Knox case, he believes there is a question over whether the independent experts were in fact more qualified than the scientific police, without excluding that mistakes were made by the latter.

"Who says these two (the independent experts) have a level of competence enough to give us the certainty that everything was mistaken?" he asked. "We must not give exclusive importance to what the independent experts said."

Garofalo said he also believed, from his own investigations, that the evidence from the bra clip and knife was "very limited" but said there was other material including blood found in the bath of the apartment where Kercher was killed that could have thrown more light on who was responsible.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the acquittal, the collapse of the police case has left the Kercher family still racked by uncertainty over how Meredith died.

Ruede Guede, an Ivoirian drifter and drug dealer, is the only person convicted in a crime which investigators believe was committed by several people, some of whom held Kercher down while she was stabbed and had her throat cut.

"Of course if those released yesterday are not the guilty party, we are now obviously left wondering who is the other person or people," her brother Lyle said.

(Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi; editing by Andrew Roche)

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