Why Race Matters in the Amanda Knox Case

White Womanhood, Black Scapegoats and a Transcontinental Culture Clash

Amanda Knox after she's acquitted of killing Meredith Kercher.
Amanda Knox, flanked by attorneys and fiance Colin Sutherland, speaks to the media during a brief press conference in front of her parents' home March 27, 2015, in Seattle, WA following acquittal in the murder of Meredith Kercher -- killed in her bedroom on Nov. 1, 2007, in Perugia, IT.

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Given the popularity true crime series covering O.J. Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, and Steven Avery have recently enjoyed, it’s no surprise that Netflix released the documentary “Amanda Knox” on Sept. 30 to enormous fanfare. The program stands out from others on Knox—the U.S. exchange student in Italy accused of killing her British roommate in 2007—in that it is largely told from her perspective.

Teasers for the film show Knox sans makeup with a severely cut bob. Her features are now angular, the round cheeks that led the European press to call her “angel face” gone. 

“Either I'm a psychopath in sheep's clothing or I am you,” she says sternly.

But the documentary only pretends to be interested in pinpointing the real Knox. The omission of information that reflects badly on her makes that clear throughout. Whether she’s guilty or innocent was never the most compelling aspect of her case, anyway—the culture clash, the false accusation of a Black man for the crime, the slut-shaming and the idea that U.S. courts are somehow superior to Italian courts—are what drew in people from across the globe.

Nearly a decade after Meredith Kercher’s murder, my questions about the case are unchanged. Would the press have given Knox as much attention if she’d been a student of color accused of killing her roommate abroad? Would Kercher, born to an English father and an Indian mother, have garnered more press had she been a blonde like Natalee Holloway? People of color make up a disproportionate amount of crime victims and those falsely convicted of crimes, but they do not generally become celebrities like Knox and other whites, such as Avery, Ryan Ferguson and the West Memphis Three have. 

The Central Park Five, the group of Black and Latino teens wrongly convicted of attacking a white woman jogging in 1989, are the exception to the rule. Their conviction was the subject of a 2012 Ken Burns documentary. But from the outset, the public widely believed they were guilty. Donald Trump even referred to them as “animals” and took out a newspaper ad calling for their executions. When the real attacker confessed, Trump refused to apologize for his previous comments. In contrast, when he heard about Knox’s murder case, he offered to help her, demonstrating how an accused person’s race and gender affect public perception of her guilt or innocence.

Reflecting on the Knox case in the age of Black Lives Matter makes it rather comical that Americans argued that the U.S. legal system was more just than the Italian counterpart. Only a few days after Knox’s 2009 conviction for killing Kercher, I wrote about my concerns with media coverage of the case for the now-defunct Racialicious blog. The conviction was later overturned, but my observations about Knox’s defenders remain relevant today as the Netflix documentary shines a spotlight on her case once more. Here’s what I had to say:

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I first heard the name Amanda Knox nearly a year ago. As someone who, like Knox, traveled to Europe to study abroad, even visiting Italy during my time there, I sympathized with the young Seattle woman charged with killing her roommate while an exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Numerous articles portray the University of Washington student as an innocent wrongly targeted by a corrupt Italian prosecutor and victimized by Italians who were misogynistic and anti-American.

Despite my sympathy for Knox—found guilty of murdering Meredith Kercher by an Italian jury Dec. 4—I take issue with the articles written in her defense. They reveal that America’s ideas about white womanhood have changed little since the 19th century, the whiteness of Italians remains tenuous and Black men continue to make convenient crime scapegoats.

I’ve no idea if Amanda Knox is innocent or guilty of the charges leveled at her—a jury’s already deemed her the latter—but some American journalists decided that she was innocent long before a verdict was reached. What’s disturbing about some of these journalists is that Knox’s race, gender, and class background played central roles in why they considered her innocent. Moreover, in defending Knox, their xenophobic and arguably “racist” feelings about Italy came to light. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan is a case in point. He wrote about Knox for the Times both in June and just before the jury issued its verdict in the case.

“All trials are about narrative,” Egan remarked in the summer. “In Seattle, where I live, I see a familiar kind of Northwestern girl in Amanda Knox, and all the stretching, the funny faces, the neo-hippie touches are benign. In Italy, they see a devil, someone without remorse, inappropriate in her reactions.”

What makes these “touches” benign—simply the fact that, to Egan, Knox was “a familiar kind of Northwestern girl?” While waiting to be interrogated, Knox reportedly did cartwheels. Egan chalks this up to Knox being an athlete. But if Donovan McNabb or LeBron James were being investigated for murder and did cartwheels during an interrogation, would their behavior be taken as that of a benign athlete or make them look unfeeling and flippant? Egan attempts to undermine Italy by making it appear as if sinister Italians were angling to punish this girl who not only reminds him of numerous girls from the Pacific Northwest but also of his own daughter. Yet, non-Italian friends of British murder victim Meredith Kercher considered Knox’s behavior to be strange as well, counteracting Egan’s attempts to discredit Italian sensibilities.

“While I was [at the police station] I found Amanda’s behavior very strange. She had no emotion while everyone else was upset,” Kercher’s friend Robyn Butterworth testified in court. And when another friend reportedly remarked that she hoped Kercher hadn’t suffered much, Butterworth recalled Knox replying, “What do you think? She f___ing bled to death.” At that point, Butterworth said, the way Kercher died hadn’t been released.

Amy Frost, another friend of Kercher, testified about Knox and Knox’s boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito.

“Their behavior at the police station seemed, to me, really inappropriate,” Frost said. “They sat opposite each other, Amanda put her feet up on Raffaele’s legs and made faces at him. Everyone cried except Amanda and Raffaele. I never saw them crying. They were kissing each other.”

Egan could have written a defense of Knox that focused on the fact that there was virtually no physical evidence of her having been at the crime scene and what little there was came under dispute because it was collected more than a month after the murder and, thus, thought to be contaminated. Instead, he chose to characterize Italy as a nation of backward, inane people.

“As this week’s closing arguments showed once again, the case has very little to do with actual evidence and much to do with the ancient Italian code of saving face,” Egan wrote on Dec. 2.

Just as Egan chose not to explain why Knox’s odd antics during her interrogation were benign, he doesn’t explain why “saving face” is an “ancient Italian code.” It’s seemingly so just because he declares it to be. In the same editorial, he discusses the Italian jury much in the same way whites have traditionally discussed people of color, such as Haitian practitioners of Vodou, Puerto Rican practitioners of Santeria, Native American medicine men or African “witch doctors.”

“Their verdict is not supposed to be about medieval superstitions, sexual projections, Satan fantasies or the honor of a prosecution team,” Egan writes.

Egan implies Italy’s legal system is filled with people who can’t be trusted to make rational decisions, a matter of crucial importance when the future of a young American white woman is at stake. How horrible that Amanda Knox’s fate is in the hands of these crazy Italians? These people still believe in superstitions and Satan, for heaven’s sake!

The way Egan and Knox’s own relatives described Italians reminded me that Americans haven’t always regarded Italians as white. This makes undermining the rationality and trustworthiness of the Italian people and court system go largely unquestioned. In a book called Are Italians White?, Louise DeSalvo writes about discrimination Italian immigrants to America faced.

“I learned…that Italian-Americans were lynched in the South; that they were incarcerated during World War II. …I later learned that Italian men who worked on the railroad earned less money for their work than ‘whites’; that they slept in filthy, vermin-infested boxcars; that they were denied water, though they were given wine to drink (for it made them tractable)…”

Some of the comments about Italians in the Knox case certainly seem like throwbacks to a time when Italians weren’t viewed as white. I have a hard time imagining that if Knox had been tried in England, consistent efforts would be made to discredit the British judicial system. To make matters worse, while American xenophobia is being aimed at Italy, American supporters of Knox are painting Italy as anti-American. Former prosecutor John Q. Kelly even used racialized language when discussing Knox’s plight, likening treatment of her to “a public lynching.”

Isn’t this how racism works today? People who exhibit clearly racist attitudes and behaviors accuse President Obama of being anti-white or blame Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for perpetuating racism rather than historic, institutionalized white supremacy.

After Knox was found guilty of murder, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell stated, “I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial.”

This argument of anti-Americanism falls apart considering that Italian national Raffaele Sollecito was also found guilty of murder. Are we to believe that an Italian jury would sacrifice one of its own to spite America?

The problematic racial overtones in the reporting of the case not only involve Italians but Black men. Following her November 2007 arrest, Knox wrote to police that bar owner Patrick Lumumba killed Kercher.

“In these flashbacks that I’m having, I see Patrik [sic] as the murderer, but the way the truth feels in my mind, there is no way for me to have known because I don’t remember FOR SURE if I was at my house that night.”

Because of Knox’s repeated insinuations that Lumumba murdered Kercher, he spent two weeks in jail. Police ended up releasing him because he had a solid alibi. Lumumba sued Knox for defamation and won.

While Egan has mentioned that Knox mistakenly linked Lumumba to Kercher’s murder, he quickly let her off the hook for it, as did a commenter at women’s Web site Jezebel who remarked:

“I don’t judge her for that at all. She was held in an Italian prison, questioned for days, and encouraged to ‘confess.’”

But to ignore Knox’s transgression on this front is to ignore the history of sympathetic (but guilty) white Americans fingering Black men for crimes the men never committed. In 1989, for instance, Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, Carol, but told police that a Black man was responsible. Two years later, Susan Smith murdered her young sons but told police initially that a Black man had carjacked her and kidnapped the boys.

Although Knox said that she fingered Lumumba for the crime under duress, her doing so casts suspicion on her and shouldn’t be overlooked by those who find it hard to believe that a pretty American coed is capable of murder. Another Black man, Rudy Guede from the Ivory Coast, was convicted of killing Kercher before Knox and Sollecito were, but evidence suggested that more than one assailant was involved in Kercher’s demise. If authorities believe that Guede didn’t act alone, why is it difficult to believe that Knox also played a role in Kercher’s murder? After all, Knox gave inconsistent statements about her whereabouts the evening of Kercher’s death and did not call police after reportedly finding the door to her home wide open and blood on the floor. To boot, her lover, Sollecito, bought two bottles of bleach the morning after Kercher’s death allegedly to clean up the crime scene, where police found his bloody footprints as well as Knox’s.

These facts hardly reflect well on Knox, so I’m willing to consider her guilt as well as her innocence. Perhaps her use of hashish the night of Kercher’s death clouded her memory. But those who refuse to consider that Knox is guilty, all the while attacking the Italian justice system, remind me of those who struggled to believe that Lizzie Borden hacked her parents to death in 1892.

“The horrific ax murders of Andrew Borden and his third wife, Abby, would have been shocking in any age, but in the early 1890s they were unthinkable,” writes Denise M. Clark in Crime Magazine. “Equally unthinkable was who wielded the ax that butchered them…The idea that the murderer could possibly be…Lizzie took days to register with the police – despite overwhelming physical and circumstantial evidence that pointed only at her….What would end up saving her was the remarkable violence of the murders: The murders were simply too grisly to have been committed by a woman of her upbringing.”

Isn’t this the argument that Egan makes when he described Knox as a benign hippie type from the Pacific Northwest? Knox, we’re told, worked multiple jobs to save up money to study abroad. She excelled in athletics and academics alike. Girls like her don’t commit murder, many Americans believe. And if she were tried stateside, perhaps she would have gotten off as Lizzie Borden did. But apparently, Italians aren’t burdened by the cultural baggage that weighs down America. White and female and from a good family don’t equal innocent.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Why Race Matters in the Amanda Knox Case." ThoughtCo, Jan. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/amanda-knox-case-why-race-matters-4098576. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, January 17). Why Race Matters in the Amanda Knox Case. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/amanda-knox-case-why-race-matters-4098576 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Why Race Matters in the Amanda Knox Case." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/amanda-knox-case-why-race-matters-4098576 (accessed March 6, 2021).