Come to Italy. Get the Story.

Amanda Knox enters the courtroom in Perugia, June 1, 2010. Photo by Wendy Murray. Copyright©Wendy Murray 2010. All rights reserved.

In Court Again

The second phase of Amanda Knox’s ongoing troubles

by Wendy Murray

Having had the opportunity to meet with Amanda Knox’s stepfather, Chris Mellas, when he visited Assisi to talk with my IJSA students (see stories below); coupled with my remaining in Italy after the IJSA students returned to the U.S.; I thus had the opportunity to go to Perugia, along with my friend and translator Valentina DiMaggio, to watch as a new phase of the murder case unfolds. (Amanda was charged and convicted of the 2007 slaying of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, which the family is appealing; see stories below.) I stood directly behind her stepfather, Chris Mellas, as Amanda was escorted into the courtroom and snapped the above picture. In the instant afterward, her stepfather called to her and she looked up and smiled at him.

This hearing was the first phase of the criminal law suit the Italian police have filed against her for claims she made about them during the interrogation process. The family requested that a new judge be placed in charge of this trial, since the judge assigned had already made a ruling against Amanda at an early stage of the case. The same judge, by Italian law, cannot oversee two aspects of an ongoing case once he or she has already rendered a ruling. As a result of the family’s request, the hearing lasted only a few minutes and will reconvene on June 17 as the court considers the family’s request.

For a clear description of this complicated process, you can read more about it here.

(Photo by Wendy Murray for IJSA; Copyright©2010 by Wendy Murray. All rights reserved. This photo may not be reproduced in any form without written consent of the owner.)

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A Springtime Lament

Amanda Knox Waits, the Kerchers “Keep Going”

by Wendy Murray

and the students of the International Journalism Seminar – Assisi (IJSA)

[Copyright©Wendy Murray, 2010. All rights reserved. No portion of this work can be reproduced in any form–print or electronic–without written permission of the author.]

Assisi, Italy, May 2010

It is a new spring day in Umbria. The season of rain seems finally to have been overtaken by the region’s signature sapphire skies. Morning mist hangs low over the mountains and birds in collective urgency sing the sun to its rising. Spring has returned to central Italy, and with it all the animation and hopefulness the season portends. Whereas in a quiet prison cell on the outskirts of Perugia a young woman waits, spring and its hopefulness instead echo only a lament. And more so for the another young woman–or, more to the point, the family she left behind when she left Britain optimistically in the fall of 2007 to study in Italy and never returned. The murder of Meredith Kercher (then age 21) isn’t exactly “old news” in this the third spring since her death, as much as it is a story so sad that all its respective players–Italians, Americans, British and even Africans–simply can’t sustain an ongoing conversation about it. It is an excruciatingly complicated story that carries all the elements of every person’s worst nightmare: movements in a dark night; use of force; attempts at escape; fear; confusion; disorientation; a feeling of being trapped; and in the end, a dead body that nobody claims.

Meredith — or “Mez” as her family and friends called her–came to the Umbrian town of Perugia in the fall of 2007 to complete her degree in European studies. During the night of November 1st, that same fall, she was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her home. She shared a flat in a small cottage outside the city center with three others: two Italian women and one American. The “American girl” (the irony is not missed by the Americans), Amanda Knox, soon to be 24, was convicted of the murder by an Italian court in December 2009, which likewise convicted her (then) Italian lover, Raffaele Sollecito and a third man from the Ivory Coast, Rudy Guede.

Knox sees the coming of her third spring from the confines of her prison cell in Perugia, where she is serving a 26 year sentence. Her immediate family, consisting of a biological father (Curt Knox), his wife Cassandra, a biological mother (Edda Mellas) and a stepfather (Chris Mellas), have taken out real estate in Perugia; have purchased a car and registered it in Germany (to evade the unrelenting parking tickets in Perugia) and rotate their stints taking up residency there so that on the six days a month when Amanda can receive visitors, a family member is always there.

This is a sad story. In fact, it carries at its essence the elements of the saddest of all stories. It is so complicated, confused and visceral that human sensibilities are not sufficient to navigate objectively its many twists, turns and heartbreak. The lives of families from multiple countries are forever changed because of the events that unfolded on November 1, 2007 in a small cottege in the Italian hill town of Perugia.

In Memory of Meredith

(Stevie Bittner)

If Amanda Knox is the fox of the Italian justice system, then Meredith Kercher is a mouse. The unceasing controversy surrounding Knox’s involvement in the 2007 murder often overshadows its victim, leaving Kercher’s memory primarily noted in her death.

Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British exchange student, was found with her throat slashed, bruises all over her body, and proof of sexual assault two days after Italy’s Halloween. At the time, Meredith had been studying abroad in Perugia for two months.

By most accounts, Kercher is portrayed as the face of innocence: she criticized Knox for bringing boys to the apartment they shared and is known to have cut short social visits to attend to her academic duties.  It is likewise said that her death resulted in her refusal to have sex with one of three convicted killers, the Ivory Coast native, Rudy Guede.

The young British student hailed from Coulsdon, Surrey and was in Italy completing her Leeds University degree. She studied political history, and planned to graduate that year. Kercher worked diligently for the opportunity to study in Italy, finding two jobs the previous summer in order to save money. She chose Perugia because of their annual Chocolate Festival, which she attended with her apartment-mate. According to Knox’s stepfather, Chris Mellas, in an exclusive interview, Knox’s destroyed hard drive would have contained a video of the roommates enjoying time together.

Meredith’s sister, Stephanie, remembers how she loved to dance. In her teens, Meredith was involved in karate and ballet. Meredith also spent a good deal of time with her family and enjoyed their company; while studying abroad she telephoned and text messaged them regularly. (Kercher had planned to visit home with gifts and chocolates for her mother’s birthday the week after her murder.) In the mornings, she loved looking out at the beautiful Umbrian hills from her shared apartment. Like many young girls, she watched The Notebook with her friends, and took pleasure from shopping, reading, and writing poetry. Kercher was a diligent Erasmus scholar whose most wicked exploit may have been dressing up as a vampire for Halloween.

Meredith’s mother and father, Arline and John Kercher, arrived in Italy shortly after hearing the news about their daughter. Her father, a long-time journalist, learned about his daughter’s death from the foreign news desk of an affiliate newspaper. Upon arriving in Italy, John Kercher was unable to enter the morgue to identify his daughter’s body. “It would have put a full stop to my memory of her,” he said. Meredith’s mother, Arline Kercher, has grieved differently. “I still look for [Meredith],” she said.

The family has said on multiple occasions that in her last moments Meredith would have fought to the end. At the sentencing of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, Meredith’s father lamented that the entire situation, “destroys me.” Still, the family acted with grace and dignity throughout the trial and today they maintain strict privacy. (Attempts by the writer to get in touch with the family’s media representative were unsuccessful.)

Three siblings, John, Lyle, and Stephanie, survive the 21-year-old and all have been actively involved in pursuing justice for their sister. The family wants irrefutable answers. Knox has said herself, “Meredith was my friend.” Regardless, on that tragic night, Meredith Kercher’s personal gifts, strength of character, and accomplishments could not to save her.  Now these qualities can only save her remembrance.

Who Is Amanda Knox?

(Dan Awad)

The Perugian court convicted three suspects in the rape and murder of British exchange student, Meredith Kercher, on November 1, 2007. They include Rudy Guede of the Ivory Coast; Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian native; and Amanda Knox from the United States. While the first two convicts have gradually lost the media’s interest, the sentence of Amanda Knox continues to provoke international confusion and controversy.

Born and raised in the organic, free spirited city of Seattle, Washington, Knox (almost 23) grew up in what seems to have been a healthy environment. Although her parents divorced when she was two, her mother soon remarried Chris Mellas and remains in a consistent stable relationship. Her biological father, Curt Knox (remarried to Cassandra Knox) stayed involved in Amanda’s life. She enjoyed playing soccer, and attended an expensive, private Catholic school.  According to her stepfather, Chris Mellas, in an interview with the IJSA, Amanda greatly excelled in her academics. School reports highlight her “academic excellence, community service, kindness and ‘total integrity in all matters, large and small,” as reported by Nick Allen of the Telegraph.  Allen continues, “She learned Japanese, German, Italian and Latin, acted in musicals and played football, dreaming of becoming a writer or an interpreter.” After graduating from high school she continued at the University of Washington where she focused on modern languages.

Knox is not a stranger to travel. Before coming to Perugia, she spent time in Japan studying the language and culture. Her exposure to and interaction with Buddhist monks elevated her interest in yoga and spirituality. Mellas said that, although Amanda does not adhere to any religious tradition, she is “quite spiritual.”  She showed no signs of aberrant behavior, enjoying bike riding, delving into literature, rock climbing, and working as a barista in the local coffee shop. Her friends speak highly of her, including a former boyfriend, David Johnsrud, who describes her as “one of the most warm-hearted individuals I’ve ever known.” Even so, her own family attests to her naivety–such as going on solo hikes or riding her bike alone at night through the worst parts of town–and Mellas himself told the IJSA that he worried about her decision to come to Italy to study (he would have preferred she go to school in Germany).

Knox likewise has been known for eccentric and sometimes bizarre behavior, a point which even her stepfather concedes. He resisted her idea of coming to Italy (noted above) At the early stages of the investigation, only days after the gruesome death of her roommate, witnesses (including some of Kercher’s friends) saw her performing cartwheels  and other gymnastic stretches outside the police station while awaiting her appointment with the investigators.

Knox describes herself on a popular social networking site as neither a drinker nor smoker, yet her own behavior has clearly contradicted this. Sources show Knox as having a history with alcohol and drug use as well as an unusual sexual hunger. In 2007, shortly before leaving to Perugia, she received a hefty fine for hosting a wild party at her student home in Seattle. Her stepfather admits to knowing of Amanda’s marijuana use though it did not arouse his concern, citing that this is not untypical of Amanda’s age group. Her sister, Deanna, states that Amanda lost her virginity at age 19 and Knox disclosed, after her arrest, that she had been sexually active with seven different partners prior to her arrest at age 20. In a troubling irony, Amanda–an aspiring writer–wrote a short story during college about the violent rape of a woman by a man who had drugged her.

The Italian

(Suz Hoofnagle)

If you are not Raffaele Sollecito, a member of his family, a close friend, or even a close acquaintance, it is possible you may not have a conclusive answer about who he is. The only Italian in the tangle of heartache that marks the murder of Meredith Kercher, he alone removes the argument that the convictions arose from an anti-American prejudice. He grew up in the Italian town of Giovinazzo, in Bari and belongs to a prominent Italian family.

With factual knowledge of his past, his personal writings, as well as words about him from friends may offer a glimpse into the riddle of who this Italian man is, and likewise may lend understanding in the human element of Sollecito’s part in this modern tragedy.

Sollecito, the (now) 26 year old man and former boyfriend of Amanda Knox, was convicted along with Amanda of participating in the murder of Meredith Kercher. According to Chris Mellas, Knox’s stepfather, when he spoke to IJSA students, “Amanda and Raffaele are no longer in a relationship. They are still friends, they write to each other, and they are supportive of each other, but Raffaele is not Amanda’s boyfriend.”

His family–mother, father and sister– who reside in this town on the Adriactic Coast of Southern Italy–is tightly knit and fiercely loyal. Sollecito’s father, Dr. Francesco Sollecito, a urologist, bought his son a flat in Perugia, near the village’s University, where the son was enrolled. The flat’s proximity to the school allowed Sollecito to commute to class. As of the fall of 2007, Sollecito was working toward a degree in computer engineering.

Mellas says that when Amanda first described Raffaele to him and her mother (his wife) Edda, she likened him to J.K. Rowling’s fanciful and bespectacled and world-famous character: “She said he looked like Harry Potter. She wanted me to come visit her in Italy because she wanted me to meet him.”

Mellas echoes what Sollecito’s family and friends have already said about his interest in and passion for computers and video games. “Amanda thought I’d really like Raffaele. He’s a computer guy. I’m an IT guy. He’s a lot like me. I’m a lot like him. Raffaele and I write letters. He sent me a letter saying he hopes to move to Seattle after all of this and get involved in the video and computer game industry there.”

Sollecito had a knife collection, was fascinated with Manga (Japanese comic books), and on occasion smoked pot. He is also known for possessing a keen mind and generous heart, noted by his friend, Antonella Petruzzella:

I met Raffaele in the first year of high school. He was always . . . generous and friendly. . . . I recall a day in college [when] I had an exam in English and had some difficulty. He offered to help me translate texts. . .  Between translations we talked of friendship, love and important values.

Sollecito expresses his own thoughts through the diary he has kept since being incarcerated.

I’m trying to kill time and while I hear voices and screams of convicts who play football. . . . Listen and think, think hard, about everything that happened to me . . . . My brain these days seems a relentless machine that tries to reconnect and imagine . . . Then I stop, for going crazy.

In the same diary, he expresses his commitment to continue working out in his cell and staying physically fit. He mentions his unhappiness with the uncleanliness of his cell and bathrooms. He mentions in a later entry how he spent all day cleaning one bathroom top to bottom, and then expressing great joy in its cleanliness.

Through Sollecito’s diary entries and statements made by his father, it is evident the Sollecitos share a strong family closeness and fierce loyalty. Sollecito’s sister Vanessa, who at the time of the murder worked with the elite Italian military police force, the Carabinieri, lost her postion because an investigator who had tapped her phone, thought he heard her using her position to help secure her brother’s innocence.

Sollecito is clearly an intelligent young man with many different interests, hobbies and passions–traits of a kind that mark all human beings. He was 23 when he was accused of participating Meredith Kercher’s murder and 25 when he was convicted sentenced to 25 years in prison. Which brings us to the events that transpired on November 1, 2007.

November 1, 2007

(Elise D’Adamo)

November 1, 2007, the screams of Meredith Kercher could be heard only from a neighbor’s house. That night around 4p.m., Meredith arrived at a friend’s house in Perugia for dinner and to watch The Notebook. At 9pm Meredith left her friend’s house, saying that she was tired and was going to go back home. For the first half of her walk she was with a friend and then the rest of the way she was alone.

It is widely believed that Meredith’s murderer entered the home at around 11:30pm. What occurred thereafter is disputed.  Amanda Knox, Meredith’s apartment mate, attests she walked into the house the next morning (after spending the night with Sollecito) to find Meredith’s door locked. She thought it strange, but didn’t think much of it. Upon walking into the bathroom, she discovered an un-flushed toilet and spots of blood. She took a shower and then left to go back to her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito’s apartment. When she came back police surrounded her apartment and an investigation team searching the home.

Once Meredith’s bedroom door had been broken down, she was found partially clothed under her duvet cover with her blood covering the walls, floor, and bed. Her throat had been slit with a steak knife and bruises appeared on her neck as if from strangulation. Her killer had stabbed her through her neck with a knife that was not present at the crime scene, nor found on the property during the investigation. The 40 bruises and scratches about her neck and hands, lent evidence that she struggled fiercely against her killer. Bruising and DNA evidence verified that she had been sexually assaulted. Two of her credit cards as well as 300 euro were stolen from her and her two cell phones were found in a house garden. The phones were the first bits of evidence, found by a concerned neighbor, who reported it to the police. It was then that they drove to the scene and discovered Meredith’s body.

After three years of investigations and reviews of the evidence, testimonies, and various other documents and clues, the exact details related to the crime that killed Meredith are still uncertain and disputed.

The Case Unfolds:

The suspects

(Anna DeCristofaro and Deborah Devenney)

What started out as a night of enjoyment for the young American college student Amanda Knox, and her new beau of two weeks, Italian student Raffaele Sollecito (25), ended in tragedy for the couple and also for the family of Meredith Kercher. For three years now, this heartbreaking night has been closely watched. Amanda Knox, in particular, has captured the public eye, having been named, arrested, and convicted as one of the accomplices in Meredith’s murder. Her (now) ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and a third party, Rudy Guede (22), have been likewise convicted of involvement in the murder.

Amanda Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison and currently sits in her jail cell in Perugia anticipating the change to win back her freedom through appeals, and ultimately, a ruling from Italy’s Supreme Court. Raffaele Sollecito also remains incarcerated in a different location, sentenced to 25. Rudy Guede received a 30-year sentence.

It is inevitable that, as Meredith’s flat mates, Knox and the other two (Italian) flat mates would be brought in for questioning. The Italian flat mates were quickly dismissed because of their confirmed alibis. But Amanda’s story was not so clear cut.

Knox and Sollecito were taken to to police station for questioning on November 5, 2007, at first, as witnesses in the investigation. Police began growing suspicious of the two because they seemed to be behaving strangely in the immediate aftermath of this brutal crime.  The police interrogated Knox for 14 hours through the night. In her trial in November 2008, she testified to being verbally and physically abused by the police, even being hit by one female officer. (The police in time filed a lawsuit against her for slander; discussed below.)

Suspicion grew when Sollecito and Knox gave differing accounts of what they did on  the night of the murder. Sollecito said that he and Knox were at a friend’s house for a party and that at 9:00 p.m. Knox said she was going to meet friends at Le Chic (a bar) and that the two parted ways. He said he returned home to smoke pot, eat, and talk to his father on the phone, which he said occurred at about 11:00 p.m. Then he said he was home alone until 1:00 a.m. surfing the internet.

According to Knox, she did not go to Le Chic but instead went to Sollecito’s home and checked her e-mail. She also said they showered and then ate together around 11:00 p.m.

Scientists claim that computer records indicate that Sollecito’s computer was inactive for eight hours on the night of the murder and that phone records indicate that Sollecito actually spoke with his father at 8:40 p.m.

By the morning of November 6, 2007, Knox had signed a statement in the police department that she was in the room when Kercher was murdered and that Diya “Patrick” Lumumba killed Meredith. Lumumba, now 38, is a Congolese and local pub owner who until recently had employed Knox. Knox claimed Lumumba was infatuated with Kercher and was in her bedroom before her murder. Knox denied this in later statements.

With her signed statement, Sollecito, Knox, and Lumumba were arrested for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Shortly after his arrest, though, Lumumba was released for lack of evidence and an air-tight alibi: he was at his bar and was seen by hundreds of patrons and employees.

Sollecito and Knox, however, had a growing case against them with the introduction of physical evidence. Some of Knox’s blood was mixed with Kercher’s blood in their bathroom. Also, what police believe to be the murder weapon was a knife found in Sollecito’s kitchen. The knife contained traces of Kercher’s DNA on the blade and Knox’s fingerprints on the handle. Sollecito’s DNA was found on the broken clasp of Meredith’s bra strap.

Amanda’s stepfather, in an interview with IJSA, contested the veracity of the forensic evidence, stating that the testing done on the knife was irregular and the results  could have been distorted. He concedes that the DNA taken from the broken bra clasp does indeed match Sollecito’s. However he maintains that his DNA found its way to the scene by way of environmental contamination.

Evidence at the scene led to the arrest of a final suspect, a young man from the Ivory Coast named Rudy Guede. Guede, now 22, was friends with the men who lived in the same building as Kercher and Knox and was well known among the college students. He is believed, likewise, to have known both women.

His bloody handprint was found on a pillow at the murder scene, his fingerprints were throughout the room, and his DNA from urine in the unflushed toilet in Kercher’s bathroom. His fingerprints were matched to his file from a previous drug charge. When police went to arrest him, he had already fled the country.

His warrant was issued throughout Europe and he was arrested later in November 2007 in Germany after trying to travel without a ticket. He was extradited back to Italy and confessed to police that he was with Kercher on the night of her murder. He admitted to having sex with her that night, which was supported by forensic evidence. but then said that he went to the bathroom and listened to three songs on his iPod, which prevented him from hearing what he claims was another man come into the room to commit the murder.  He said he came out of the apartment he says he saw a man with brown hair holding Kercher. The man left and Guede tried to help Kercher, whose throat had been slit, but left her there and fled.

Amanda and Raffaele

(Annie Battles)

The two-week long relationship of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito was immediately brought under close scrutiny upon the implication of the two as suspects. As media attention turned to the couple, the public wondered how it was that these two individual’s stories became so radically and permanently intertwined.

What is known of the pair’s relationship is this: Amanda and Raffaele met at a classical music concert approximately two weeks before Meredith’s death. They began dating and spent a significant amount of time together in the following days.  According to Chris Mellas, Amanda’s stepfather, she was essentially living with Raffaele the week leading up to the murder.  He recounts that his step-daughter talked excitedly about Raffaele on the phone and said she would like for Chris to meet him.

Both Amanda and Raffaele claim to have been together the night of the incident, though their testimonies differ in several key details.  Police suspicions were raised after Amanda exhibited bizarre behavior during Raffaele’s early interrogation. The two became suspects following separate questionings, where they gave testimonies that held alarming discrepancies.

At the conclusion of the highly publicized and scrutinized trial, the pair was pronounced guilty of carrying out the sexual assault and murder of Meredith Kercher, along with Rudy Guede. The verdict against the two was based upon three main pieces of DNA evidence. The ruling also pointed to circumstantial evidence, particularly significant incongruities in the case.

DNA found on a portion of Meredith’s bra clasp was found to be Raffaele’s. However, the defense was quick to point out that this clasp was not collected until weeks after the incident. Videos of the crime scene also show that the clasp had been moved about the room, potentially resulting in contamination.

Bloody footprints in the bathroom matched the type of tennis shoe that Raffaele owned. Later, however, it was determined that the size of the shoe did not match his foot size. Investigators attributed the footprints to Guede, who also wore the same brand of tennis shoe.

The most significant piece of forensic evidence brought before the jury was a kitchen knife from Sollecito’s apartment. Amanda’s DNA was found on the handle, while forensic experts assert that a trace of Meredith’s DNA was found in a groove on the knife. According to Mellas, the knife blade matched only one of three puncture wounds on Meredith’s body and, he said, the speck of DNA said to belong to Meredith on the tip of the knife was too small to be conclusive. Finally, the defense argued that is was only reasonable that Amanda’s DNA be found on the knife handle, as she had prepared dinner in Raffaele’s kitchen.

A fourth piece of forensic evidence was also brought into play, though it remains largely inconclusive. Traces of Amanda’s blood and DNA were found mixed with Meredith’s in the girls’ shared bathroom. While not insignificant, the defense (along with some forensic experts) assert it is possible that blood was left in the bathroom by Amanda days or even weeks before the murder, perhaps from menstruation or a recent ear piercing.

What implicated Amanda and Raffaele almost as much, if not more, than the small amounts of forensic evidence was incriminating circumstantial evidence, including the pair’s differing alibis. Circumstantial evidence is not dismissed, as the Italian judicial system is known to rely equally on such evidence if defendants’ testimonies are incongruent or deemed false. In the United States, the legal system demands evidence beyond a shadow of doubt (they must prove a defendant perpetrated a crime) whereas in the Italian legal system, as one Italian sociologist explained it to IJSA, “They can’t prove she didn’t [do it].”

Amanda’s Confusion

(Claire Kinnen)

It is difficult to determine how to respond when faced with shocking and horrifying events. How should one act and what should one say? As seen in the events following the tragic death of Meredith Kercher, the right response, whatever that may be, is crucial.

When Knox later testified for the first time on June 12, 2009, she claimed that she was coerced into making a false confession; that she was abused by the Italian police and was at Sollecito’s flat during the night of the murder. However, both Knox and Sollecito originally said that she was with him for only part of night, later leaving and returning to her own flat. Phone records indicate that Knox and Sollecito lied about how long they slept in the following morning and when they turned their phones off and back on again. Though a faulty assertion about a cell phone is not hard evidence, it does nothing to perpetuate Knox’s claim of innocence.

Knox infamously turned cartwheels during Sollecito’s interrogation and has since been said to pose for the cameras during courtroom proceedings. As with American courtrooms, Italian courts assume an attitude of respect from not only their defendants but also attendees. However, neither Knox nor her family has managed to fly under the radar of the scrutinizing media.

Chris Mellas, Knox’s stepfather whom she has known since she was in the 2nd grade, told IJSA that Knox, an avid yogi, was only stretching during a long and difficult ordeal to de-stress. Mellas describes Knox as “a little naïve” and “not so street-wise.” He said these characteristics originally concerned him when his step-daughter decided to study in Perugia.  Knox decided against living in-campus housing, choosing instead to rent a flat with other students. Mellas described how Knox registered for class and found her flat all within two days–an impressive feat for a girl who knew little Italian. Perhaps it was indeed naiveté and lack of street smarts that caused Knox to behave in a manner that appeared odd.  Though Amanda’s behavior alone cannot and does not incriminate her, she certainly did not help herself.

Knox reflected on Kercher’s brutal death, calling it, “yucky, disgusting.” She came off as callous when stating that “in the end” she only knew Kercher “for a month” and that she was trying “to get on with” her life.

Odd behavior does not render hard evidence pointing to guilt. There is little forensic evidence to prove her involvement and, according to Mellas, video footage of the crime scene investigation has provoked criticism from some regarding the handling of the investigation. Even if mistakes were made–an assertion that is fiercely refuted by the Italian police– Knox’s inexplicable reactions do raise questions and paint a strange picture of the young American girl.

The Trial and Verdict

(Steven Fletcher)

On Dec. 4 2009, American college student and Seattle native, Amanda Knox, and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were sentenced in Perugia, Italy, for the murder of British student, Meredith Krecher.

The conviction ended a year long trial, and two year long investigation, conducted in the Court of Assize, mired in conflict and controversy. Media focus lay more on the discrepancies between the Italian and American court systems, rather than the Italian verdict, with American audiences yelling cries of “injustice.”

Judge Claudia Matteini presided over Knox’s trial sentenced Sollecito to 25 years in prison and Knox to 26. Both parties were pronounced guilty on charges of sexual assault and murder.  The third accomplice, Rudy Guede, native of the Ivory Coast, opted for a “fast-track” trial, and the court sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

The court’s final verdict maintained that Guede assaulted Kercher with the aid of drug- impaired Knox and Sollecito. The court believed that Knox slashed her roommate’s throat with a kitchen knife. The knife possessed traces of both students’ DNA. Judge Giancarlo Massei, in a report by ABC news, wrote, “ [The crime took place] without any planning, without any animosity or feeling of resentment against the victim, ….the crime seems to have taken place on the basis of merely casual contingency.” Interestingly, Massei’s verdict disagrees with the conclusions of the prosecution, under Guliano Mignimi, who hypothesized that Kercher died in conjunction with a sexual game. The prosecution sought a life sentence for Sollecito and Knox. Whether the Italian court made a just decision convicting the pair remains a mystery. However few, including one of Knox’s lawyers, dispute her trial’s fairness (noted in the New York Times by Carlo Dalla Vedova). Yet to American ears and eyes, the trial feels more foreign than the country itself.

According to the Times, the Italian Court held Knox and Sollecito in prison for a year before their indictment. This seems long by American judicial standards, but is in fact remarkably speedy by Italian standards. Supporters of Knox’s innocence view the proceedings as a kangaroo court. In reality, most of the criticism hinges on the difference between American and Italian court systems.  USA Today quoted Maria Cantwell, a democratic senator from Washington State, Knox’s home state, as having “serious questions” about the Italian judicial system, and possible anti-American bias in the proceedings.

Americans often fail to realize that, simply because the Italian court system doesn’t mimic the American system, doesn’t mean its procedures or standards are inferior to it’s North American counterpart. The basic legal structure behind the Italian and American courts stands at a stark contrast.

American legal procedure falls under the label “common law” and originates from Anglo-Saxon judicial proceedings. Common Law bases itself on custom and practice, giving value to judicial precedence over written law. Precedence meaning former case decisions hold influence rather than legal statues. Common law emphasizes procedural correctness and inductive reasoning.  American courts have an active and creative role in law making, and focus on the primacy of lawyers to plead a client’s case. The judge acts as a sort of referee in these disputes. Juries are comprised of citizens.

Italian legal procedure is of a different and more complicated sort. The Italian system falls under the definition of “civil law,” focusing on a code of laws. It takes most of its backing from the Roman system, particularly the Code of Justinian, that is, the codified Roman law as compiled by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. These Civil systems focus on legislative statues, which Italy doesn’t lack, rather than judicial precedent. The Italian court doesn’t create law, leaving that responsibility to other branches of government.

Where American courts focus on an accusatorial and confrontational method of trial, the civil system focuses on the inquisitorial method, deductively considering evidence and testimony, rather than the lawyer’s air-tight arguments.  Hence, the Perugian court didn’t focus on procedure, but rather, factual certainty. Lawyers advise and inform in the civil system, rather than debate, and judges take on the role of directors and examiners, rather than umpires for a judicial boxing match.

Civil systems move slower than common systems, as they deal with massive codes, rather than judicial precedent.  Americans look on and are galled at the though of Knox sitting in jail for nearly a year before her trial began.  Perhaps most foreign to the American people is the freedom of the Italian jury, made entirely from lawyers. American juries are sequestered from any media coverage of the trial they participate in. Italian jurors aren’t.
Knox found herself dealing with a strange judicial system, and for the most part, it is widely accepted that she received a fair trial. The media coverage, at least in the United States, became sensationalized and of a sound-byte nature and seemed to lose sight of who the real victim of the murder was. The name of Meredith Kercher was overshadowed by the publicity related to the details — savory and unsavory–related to her American roommate.

Knox and Sollecito began their sentences in separate prisons on December 6, 2009. Knox resides at the Capanne prison awaiting the appeal her 26-year conviction. She spends her time working in the prison church, writing, reading and enjoying biweekly visits from her family members who rotate staying in Perugia. Chris Mellas has said she has good days and bad.  She will remain in prison for two years until she appeals the court decision.

Backlash

(Ricky Marte)

Civil law suits. In the aftermath of the conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, other factors still linger that remain to be decided. The trials are not over for Knox. Patrick Lumumba, Knox’s former employer, sued her for more than $500,000 because in the early stages of questioning, Knox accused Lumumba of murdering Kercher. A court ruled that Amanda Knox had to pay Lumumba roughly $60,000 in damages. Lumumba also announced in February of 2010 that he would be taking a claim for compensation from the Italian authorities to the European Court of Human Rights.

In addition to this lawsuit filed by Patrick Lumumba, the Kercher family also filed a civil suit for $33 million against anyone found guilty of murdering Kercher. At this stage, those who have been found guilty in the Italian courts, include Knox, Sollecito, and Rudy Guede, all of whom share in the lawsuit.

Criminal law suits. In addition to these civil suits, Amanda Knox, as a result of her testimony during the trial, has been charged with defamation of the police (in January 2010) and, thus, she would have to go through yet another criminal trial, to begin next week.  During the trial Amanda stated that the police told her that she “would be arrested and put in jail for 30 years,” and that the police called her a “stupid liar.” Amanda also claims that the police physically assaulted her. The police strongly contest that any misconduct took place during the early investigation of the murder. Knox’s parents, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas, are also facing a libel suit for repeating Amanda’s accusations regarding the treatment she received. Amanda and her parents each face separate slander charges. In Italy, a slander case is considered criminal, therefore carrying with it possible jail time of 2-6 years and/or a possible fine.

Clarification: The difference between a civil lawsuit and a criminal lawsuit has everything to do with who initiates the action. In a civil lawsuit, a private party (individual or corporation) files the lawsuit and thus becomes the plaintiff. In a criminal lawsuit, the government or an arm of it, files the litigation. A civil suit never brings about jail time, but is resolved through fines.  A criminal suit involves jail time, and possibly a fine paid to the government.

The Aftermath: Two Families

(Ashley Moulton and Stevie Bittner)

For Amanda Knox and her family, this is not the end.  The family plans to proceed with both the verdict and the various civil lawsuits by continually fighting for Amanda’s freedom, innocence, and human rights.  In addition to a lengthy trial in which Amanda was declared guilty of murdering in the first degree her roommate, Meredith Kercher, the family has also faced conflicts with the media, in which they have sued various sources for making false claims about Amanda and others in her family. In addition, they confront the stress of the upcoming slander charges, which have been leveled against three separate members of the Knox family.

For the Knox family, the battle with the media remains ongoing.  After suing the Daily Mail for writing a false story about Edda’s parents and home life, the family continues to contend that false stories are rampant. Chris Mellas told IJSA that the family has hired a lawyer solely to address false reporting in the media and that multiple lawsuits against the media are currently pending.

Amanda is preparing for the pre-trial of her slander charge, which will occur on June 1–at this writing: next week–for which she could face an additional six-year sentence.  Amanda’s parents, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas will attend the pre-trial for their own slander charge on June 6. They too could face a six-year sentence as slander charges are technically considered criminal lawsuits in Italy.  However, Chris Mellas believes these slander charges are “indefensible by either side.”

Moreover, the lawyers of the Knox family have appealed the court’s “guilty” verdict and await the decision for an appellate trial in Perugia.  Because the family has filed the 220-page appeal of the court’s original verdict, Amanda is currently under prison rules rather than those of the judges. (Once the appeal is appointed a judge, the rules for her prison rights are determined by the judge.) Thus, for now, the family receives only six visits per month rather than the eight visits normally granted by the previous judge in order to accommodate the travel involved in order for the family to visit Amanda.  Through an appeal trial, the family hopes to reduce or eliminate their daughter’s sentence and, ideally, remove her murder conviction.  In Italy, the appeal case is carried out exactly as the first case was conducted and by law includes a fresh look at the case, a new jury, a new judge, and a new prosecutor.  Amanda’s father, Curt Knox, has stated, “I am looking forward to the appeals process and hopefully we’ll be able to bring [Amanda] home sometime this year.”

Chris Mellas, however, seems less optimistic.  He hopes to get through the appeals process quickly over the next two years at which point the family will appeal to the Italian Supreme Court, called La Corte Suprema di Cassazione.  Rather than looking at the murder case an additional time, the high court explores whether violations occurred at any point throughout the process.  Mellas expressed great confidence in the Italian Supreme Court and is convinced that his step-daughter will be vindicated on the basis of procedural violations.  Mellas asserts, for example, that Amanda’s colloquial English phrases were misinterpreted to the police and that she was not informed about her rights within the Italian justice system.

After the trial at the Italian Supreme Court, the family plans to continue to wrestle for Amanda’s rights at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  This court, established by the European Council over fifty years ago has, examined more than 10,000 cases from the 47 countries with respect for human rights.  The Convention exists to  uphold human rights such as the right to life, the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy and respect for family life, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and religion, and protection of human property.  According to Chris Mellas, such rights, in Amanda’s case, have been violated.

Throughout this long and difficult process, the Knox / Mellas family continues to devote all their resources towards overturning the murder conviction and convincing the world of Amanda’s innocence.  As Chris Mellas said only a few days ago, “You don’t abandon your kid.  You keep going.”

The Kerchers too, must keep going, though not with the hope of a second chance for their daugher, or a new day, or the possibility of another holiday at home. Meredith Kercher’s eldest brother, John said he’d like to remember Meredith’s life as her legacy, rather than the way in which she died. The Kercher family generally, even as the murder of their daughter remains mired in law suits and contradictions, stay to themselves and “keep going.”

On this Umbrian this spring day, as the rains defer to the sapphire skies and spring returns to central Italy  the families associated with this sad story face their separate tragedies, while the season’s warm breezes whisper only a lament.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Stevie Bittner’s sources:

Kington, Tom. Knox and Sollecito Murdered Meredith Kercher on Impulse, Say Italian Judges. (The Guardian, Rome: 2010). May 19 2010.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/04/knox-kercher-sollecito-judges-explanation

Pisa, Nick. Amanda Knox ‘did not kill Meredith Kercher,’ claims the third man found guilty of student’s murder. (Mail Online, March 8 2010). May 19 2010.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1256147/Amanda-Knox-did-kills-Meredith-Kercher-claims.html

Kercher’s Brother: No Joy in Verdict. (United Press International, December 5 2009). May 19 2010.

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2009/12/05/Kerchers-brother-No-joy-in-verdict/UPI-60141260049199/

Dempsey, Candace. Murder Victim Meredith Kercher: Love, Not Hate. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7 2009). May 19 2010.

http://blog.seattlepi.com/dempsey/archives/170530.asp

Lewis, Emylou. Family of Meredith Kercher Still Grieving Meredith’s Violent Death. (Examiner, Hartford: 2010). May 19 2010.

http://www.examiner.com/x-11513-Seattle-StayatHome-Moms-Examiner~y2010m1d5-Family-of-Meredith-Kercher-still-grieving-Merediths-violent-death

Wise, Ann. Meredith Kercher’s Family Testifies at Knox Trial. (ABC News, Perugia: 2009). May 23 2010.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=7772960&page=1

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Dan Awad’s sources:

Allen, Nick. “Meredith Kercher trial: Amanda Knox, the ‘shy’ former Jesuit school girl,” Telegraph (2009), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/6727724/Meredith-Kercher-trial-Amanda-Knox-the-shy-former-Jesuit-school-girl.html (accessed May 19, 2010).

Bell, Dan. “Who was the real ‘Foxy Knoxy’ BBC News (2009), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8391199.stm (accessed May 19, 2010).

Mellas, Chris. Interview by Wendy Murray. May 20, 2010. Assisi, Italy.

Murphy, Dennis. “Deadly Exchange,” Dateline (2007), http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22332240/ns/dateline_nbc-crime_reports// (accessed May 19, 2010).

Nadeau, Barbie. “The Italian Job,” Newsweek (2009),

http://www.newsweek.com/id/216903 (accessed May 19, 2010).

——————. “The Many Faces of Amanda,” Newsweek (2008), http://www.newsweek.com/id/146214?GT1=43002 (accessed May 19, 2010).

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Suz Hoofnagle’s sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8396433.stm

http://www.raffaelesollecito.org/amici.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/30/world/europe/30perugia.html?_r=1

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-492160/Murdered-Meredith-Flatmates-crazy-boyfriend-poses-meat-cleaver-bleach.html

http://quotidianonet.ilsole24ore.com/cronaca/2007/12/08/53233-amanda_meredith.shtml

http://perugiamurderfile.org/viewtopic.php?f=8&p=21952

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/3247660/Meredith-Kercher-murder-Raffaele-Sollecito-protests-his-innocence.html

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Anna DeCristofaro’s sources:

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Nadeau, Barbie. “Case Not Closed.” Newsweek 21 Apr. 2008: n. pag. Web. 25 May

2010. <http://www.newsweek.com/id/133175>.

Deborah Devenney sources

http://www.truejustice.org/ee/index.php?/tjmk/C364/

http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=3914012&page=2

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7108587.stm

http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=3890938&page=1

Annie Battles’s sources:

ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=7656872&page=1

Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/id/216903/page/2

TIME: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1904571,00.html

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Claire Kinnen’s sources:

Spotlight: Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh, Monday, Jun. 29, 2009 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1905525,00.html

Guilty Until Proven Guilty by Barbie Nadeau, December 2, 2009http://www.newsweek.com/id/225313

The Italian Job by Barbie Nadeau, October 7, 2009

http://www.newsweek.com/id/216903

Chris Mellas interview in Assisi, Italy, for IJSA, by Wendy Murray, 20 May 2010.

Monkey Trial by Barbie Nadeau, July 15th, 2000

http://www.newsweek.com/id/206765

Steve Fletcher’s Sources:

http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/12/04/italy.knox.trial/index.html

http://perugiamurderfile.org/

http://my.ilstu.edu/~ewells/cjs102/CommonvsCivilLaw-Chart.pdf

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1945430,00.html

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/k/amanda_knox/index.html?scp=1-spot&sq=Amanda%20Knox&st=cse

http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2009-12-07-knox-diplomatic-repercussions_N.htm?obref=obinsite

http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/AmandaKnox/amanda-knoxs-prison-cell/story?id=9329773

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/06/amanda-knox-jail-conditions

Ricky Marte Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_knox <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_knox>

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-5838969-504083.html <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-5838969-504083.html>

http://www.king5.com/news/local/Knox-facing-slander-trial-defense-crying-foul-93737119.html <http://www.king5.com/news/local/Knox-facing-slander-trial-defense-crying-foul-93737119.html>


Conversation with Chris Mellas, May 20, 2010, Assisi, Italy

by Wendy Murray & the International Journalism Seminar Assisi (IJSA)

(Copyright©Wendy Murray, 2010. All rights reserved. No portion of this interview can be reproduced in any form–print or electronic–without written permission of the author.)

In May 2010 the students participating in the International Journalism Seminar Assisi, led by journalist and author Wendy Murray, and part of the international study program at Gordon College (Wenham, MA), met with the stepfather of Amanda Knox–Chris Mellas. Knox, a (now) 24 year-old American student is serving a 26 year prison term in Perugia, having been convicted (with two others) of the murder in 2007 of her flat mate, Meredith Kercher. The Knox/Mellas family is appealing the conviction. In the meantime, they rotate prolonged stints living in Perugia so they can see Amanda on her visitation days. The IJSA team, working out of Assisi, Italy, met with Mellas on May 20, and heard more details about this ongoing tragedy. Below is an excerpt from this otherwise lengthy conversation. Mellas was interviewed by Wendy Murray.

How this ordeal has had an impact on you as a family? How has it changed how you live?

We look at what we were doing before this–I was getting ready to open up a restaurant, trying to get out of the IT business–and all that disappeared. Now, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, this is our first priority.

It is a crushing weight to know that everyone is looking at you. You’re always cringing, always wondering when the next article coming out. They’re talking about the family quite a bit.

Can you give us insight into Amanda’s upbringing?

Her parents were already separated when Amanda was born.  Amanda had just gotten out of 2nd grade when I married Edda. Every other weekend she would visit her father who lived 5 blocks away. Everyone lives within walking distance and they constantly get together. I credit both [Edda and Curt Knox] for having such a decent relationship. There is never any nastiness.

Do you consider yourself as a father to Amanda?I can’t say I ever really sat down and thought about it that way.  We have a very open relationship. She can tell me anything. In fact sometimes I say, “nah-ah — too much information.” But I’m all right with the majority of it.

I  spends the most time here [in Italy] because in my line of work [IT]. I can work from anywhere. I typically spend three-month blocks here and then get away for 6 to 8 weeks.

Tuesdays and Fridays she’s allowed to have visits for one hour. We sit at a table just like you and I are sitting.

How is she?

She’s still in the process of adapting to being there. Some days she’s fine, other days,  not. She’s a lot better than she was. It’s much less foreign to her now. The last time I visited her she was kind of so-so. It’s difficult for her right now because she feels like she is completely wasting her life away.

When you have something like this hanging over you it is hard to focus on anything. For the longest time she wasn’t even able to read a book. You can’t clear your mind and focus enough to do that.

Now she has to prepare for her next ordeal, her slander charge — the pretrial begins on June 1st. Slander charge is not a civil lawsuit. It’s a criminal lawsuit that carries up to six years.

Q: You suggested you were concerned about Amanda going to Italy to study. Why?

I knew before she left [for Italy], when she was living with all her friends at the University of Washington, that on occasion she would smoke weed. She didn’t do it very often. I did tell her it was stupid. She hung out with “hippie people” and considered herself “very granola.” She loved camping. She was always out rock climbing. She was into the music of the 60s and 70s, and she went vegetarian. I taught her to play guitar a little bit and so she would sit around doing that. At the same time, in college, she did have boyfriends. When she came here it was more of the same.

But her number one thing is languages. She loves languages and is fluent in several. She wanted to add Italian. I was concerned about her coming [to Italy] and said [to Edda] that she’s a little naive. She’s not street wise. Rather than going to Rome or any of these places that are a little more tourist friendly, she decided to go to Perugia. Then, on top of that, she decided to go to the regular university there [the University of Perugia], not the university for foreigners. [University of Foreigners at Perugia]. It was a hundred percent immersion. Then on top of that, she decided she didn’t want to live in a dorm but was going to get a house off campus.

I told her she wasn’t ready for this kind of thing. I told her to go study in Germany because we have family there. But she said her German was already perfect.  She’s a fairly driven person when it comes to that kind of thing. She said, “no, I want this.”

So in the end did you feel all right about her being here before November 1?

She seemed to have settled in pretty well. I was more concerned about her getting mugged. I gave her a can of pepper spray that she kept on her key chain. She complained a couple times in email about being harassed by guys coming on to her all the time. For girls, especially blond ones, it’s a common thing. But she was loving it here. She told us about Raffaele. She said he looked just like Harry Potter.


Assisi’s Life-Giving Role During World War II

By Ricky Marte

It is hard to imagine that the quaint and beautiful town of Assisi was once very much involved in the Second World War. It seems improbable to believe that anyone would come into a town like Assisi with the intention to destroy it. Assisi is a gorgeous place that is filled with many timeless jewels that are greatly cherished by its Assisiani.

The involvement of Assisi in the war was very strategic. On September 9, 1943 the Germans occupied Assisi. Along with the occupation, the Germans also brought with them many horrors that were unseen to the Assisiani. First, the Germans did not enter Assisi in a peaceful manner. According to Francesco Santucci, author of The Strategy that Saved Assisi, “On September 8th, a German captain on an exploration trip entered the courtyard of the Sacro Convento in a truck, carrying a hand grenade to subject the custos (the convent overseer) ‘to a relentless interrogation on various topics.”’

However, this was proven and showed to be reality when a commander of one of the first German divisions called in the Mayor of Assisi at the time, Arnaldo Fortini. Fortini tells the story like this. “One evening their commander, a captain of the Luft Waffe, called me to the Hotel Savoia where he was staying, and through an interpreter he read me many bans for the people almost all of which were punishable by death. Execution for whoever did not turn in their arms, for anyone found in certain areas, etc.” Although Mayor Fortini would end up talking this commander out of these harsh rules, the idea illustrates the harsh tactics of  the Germans.  They simply wanted to make a show of authority, and they did.

Sensing the potential of destruction of the city of Assisi, the authoritative figures of the town quickly formulated a plan in which they would transform Assisi from a war zone to a hospital city, which would then save it from the harm. Assisi would remain a hospital city until being liberated by the Allied forces on June 17th, 1944.

Becoming a hospital city was not the only role that Assisi played during World War II.  The small hill town also was vital to providing protection and safety for persecuted Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. The Assisi Underground, a book by Alexander Ramati, documents the role that various priests played in rescuing Jews. Ramati tells the story of “300 Jews that were sheltered and protected by a peasant turned priest.” By dressing the Jews like friars and nuns and teaching them catholic rituals, Father Rufino Niccacci was able to pass them off as clergy and allow them to live seamlessly without suspicion from anyone. Even more astounding, Ramai documents that not one single refugee was captured in Assisi, and no one ever betrayed the operation.

So, along with the role that Assisi played as a hospital city, and its role rescuing Jews from the hands of the Nazis, Assisi remained a life-giving center of hope during the Second World War, at least in the hearts of those whom they affected. Even now, 67 years later,  this ancient pilgrim town demonstrates that no matter how small you are, you can still have an impact.


This Time, It Wasn’t Saint Francis Calling for Peace

Assisi’s International Peace Conference of 1986, hosted by Pope John Paul II, both unified and fractured

by Stevie Bittner

As I look out over the sloping hillside to see fog rise from the valley over the walls of an already-waking town, I can think of no better representation of peace than the harmony of nature and civilization that is Assisi, Italy.

Perhaps this is a vision that Pope John Paul II shared as he chose the location of his interfaith peace conference almost twenty-five years ago. On October 27, 1986, a day not unlike today with threatening skies and non-committal droplets of rain, thousands gathered in courtyards, basilicas, on walls and along pathways to pray for peace. Assisi seemed, on that day, a place far less tranquil than the idea the event was promoting.

That morning, a humble Assisi became perhaps the largest house of prayer the world had ever seen. The muted cobble landscape quickly erupted in flames of color from the garb of varying religions. The streets were overcome with thirty-two denominations of Christianity, including representatives from the World Council of Churches, The Lutheran World Federation, and the Anglican Communion. Amongst them were Zoroastrians, Japanese Shinto’s, North American Animists, Buddhists and Sikhs. Others arrived in droves. Religious “celebrities” like Robert Runcle, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama crossed paths with bishops and rabbis.

The early hours of that Monday were filled with prayer in specified locations for the differing sects. Crowds of visitors and media workers went from group to group, observing or participating in rituals of worship. Television crews highlighted religious oddities. Brick walls were dotted with meditating visitors. The Church of the Minerva housed a 48-hour prayer session attended by youths and elderly alike. Assisi was alive with belief in the supernatural.

As morning became afternoon, the town transitioned into what can be likened to my Protestant understanding of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It was a mass entrance of joy and expectation into a holy place. I can only imagine the joy the sight would have been to Saint Francis – religious groups congregated in the lower square of the Basilica of Saint Francis to raise supplication and song in differing tongues to the Divine. Francis, who acted out of humility and love for others, would have been blessed by this testimony of peace in his hometown. He would have run to each, throwing his arms around them and fasting for the salvation of their souls. He would have preached from a rock with all the humility of a poor beggar. He would have handed out olive branches and found places for each person to sleep. In this town so centered around brotherhood and sisterhood of the Franciscans and Poor Clares, the practice of unity was fully understood in this gathering of various tongues, attire, and practices of worship.

But not all agreed upon its mission.

The Vatican expressed early distain for the event, saying that it presumed validity for all religions equally – a belief not upheld by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later assume the Pope’s position, refused to attend the Peace Conference on the same grounds. Catholic extremists passed out pamphlets claiming the heresy of Pope John Paul II. Some religious leaders were even bothered by the presence of military and security personnel at a conference promoting peace.

The proper response to this can only be seen through its instigator’s intent.

Pope John Paul II saw a need for peace. On his deathbed, he proclaimed, “So long as I have breath within me, I will never cease to cry out for peace.” He dedicated the year of 1986 to this idea, advocating for nations to put down their weapons. A few complied. In order to further his purpose, he sought this conference of open dialogue. It was said to be a time not for religions to pray together, but to come together to pray.

Why here? Assisi embodies the mission of Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy. It is a town characterized by peace, not only in its landscape, but also in its places of worship, community of people, and history. Here, Pope John Paul II saw an idea come to life. Assisi is a model that would be followed for years to come. The Pope would have a repeat peace conference of 2002, which would inspire Pope Benedict XVI’s peace conference of 2007. Assisi was the perfect starting point of interfaith dialogue that would promote a biblical kingdom of peace.

As a Protestant gazing out onto the beautiful hills and valleys of one of Italy’s most reverential places, I try to soak up all that this largely Catholic place can teach me. It is not just Catholic history; it is my own. In its places of worship, I experience a newfound desire for structured worship. In its quiet shaded places, I can see the need for silence and contemplation. In its awe-inspiring architecture and well-constructed walls, I can have greater respect for the Almighty. In its dark tombs, I better appreciate the lives of saints who did their best to embody all of these things.

Though Pope John Paul II’s year of peace may not have accomplished much by earthly standards, its example through the Peace Conference at Assisi points to the importance of Saint Francis’ mission. When the conference came to a close and religious leaders began making their departures on that overcast day in 1986, Franciscans lined the streets to collect trash, hand out umbrellas and give directions. This may have been the most meaningful tribute to peace the day had witnessed. And perhaps that is the call Saint Francis had in mind all along: to be good stewards, to act humbly, and to serve dutifully.

Real Journalism

Chris Mellas and his wife Edda (Amanda's mother) in Perugia as the trial draws to its close.

Having spent the day on Thursday with the stepfather of Amanda Knox we all, including our professor, have felt the force and and tragedy of covering real-life stories. Chris Mellas, Amanda Knox’s stepfather, sat with the class for two hours on Thursday, answering every question we put to him and trying to clarify some very confusing aspects of this emotional story. We intend to write and post a much lengthier piece about the case generally (involving a murder that took place three years ago in Perugia, one town over from Assisi) and our visit with Mr. Mellas specifically.  Stay tuned.

Preparing for a Very Important Visit

Tomorrow, Thursday 20 May, the IJSA class will share a personal visit and interview time with the step-father of Amanda Knox, Chris Mellas. Amanda, an American college student from Seattle who was studying in the neighboring town of Perugia, is currently serving a 26 years in prison, having been convicted by an Italian court (along with two others) of the  murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Chris is going to share with us the story of how all of this has turned their world upside down.

Converters Purchased. The Stories Await.

Next week the wheels will turn and this site will start spilling stories. The students are packed and will fly this Sunday. In the meantime, I go ahead of them to buy breakfast food. Can you imagine how challenging that is?

Keep checking.

One Week: Get Those Converters!

The assignments are made and the students are already undertaking their background research for their respective writing/reporting projects in Assisi for the first International Journalism Seminar – Assisi.

This page will carry our stories of national and international interest: most notably, extensive research and reporting on the Amanda Knox / Meredith Kercher murder case. Amanda Knox remains jailed in Perugia (one town over from Assisi) having been convicted in an Italian court, along with two others, for the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in November 2007. (The girls were both studying in Perugia at the time.) A member of Amanda’s family will be coming to Assisi to meet with my students and enable us to ask questions about Amanda, the press coverage and the trial. Keep you eye on this section of our site for updates on this ever-unfolding, heart-wrenching story.

Two Weeks and Counting

The passports are copied. The electricity converters purchased. The interviews lined up. The adventure begins in two weeks when 12 students will cross the puddle to “get the story” in Assisi, Italy. They will be bringing daily posts to this, the official ISJA blog site, writing stories of international, national, local and personal interest.

Fasten your seat belts as we begin our ascent.


The IJSA

The Assisi Workshops™ is pleased to announce that they will be co-sponsoring a Seminar on International Journalism through Gordon College and their Global Education Office in late May 2010.

The course will be comprised of lectures by Wendy Murray, who has written pieces from all over the world; guest lecturers (international correspondents on site either in Assisi or Perugia; on occasion guest lecturers from the U.S. and U.K.); visits to local press offices; interviews with local personalities; research in the local libraries. The course will require the students write pieces of national interest, local stories, a piece of historical interest; a one-on-one interview (translators provided when needed) an other short pieces that inevitably will arise.

The IJSA Launches Its First Program, May 2010

The IJSA program is soon to launch its first program. In this portion of our blog students will post human interest and local news stories from their interviews, research and random encounters in Assisi. Stay tuned.

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