Most accounts of the Amanda Knox trial, now winding into its final phase, pit the American girl against Perugia's chief prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, the man who officially charged Knox; her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito; and the son of an African immigrant, in the case of the grisly murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher two years ago. But anyone watching the trial soon notices that the case rests on the work of a band of fierce women who bear no resemblance to the caricature of the womanhood in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Italy.
Italian women are popularly defined by their role in the Prime Minister's macho broadcast nation, where pretty girls wear lingerie on television and hanker for the loving touch of a septuagenarian. Even female news anchors reading their lines over video of gore in Afghanistan wear halter tops. The reputedly randy Prime Minister has promoted some of the more lovely young things dubbed by Italians vitello, or veal from his broadcasting empire into his Cabinet. He has deflected the political fallout from the nearly pornographic video of orgiastic parties at his villas. First-person accounts from prostitutes hired to entertain him, which would have a U.S. President in an impeachment scandal, are mere delicious newspaper morsels in Italy.
In Perugia, prosecutor Mignini is the anti-Berlusconi in style and demeanor, a rumpled, avuncular man with a passion for Catholic Church history. Father to three teenage daughters and a good Italian son who visits his ailing mother at lunchtime, he didn't choose the Knox case. He just happened to be on duty the morning she was arrested. He has inadvertently fueled the popular notion of himself as Knox's chief inquisitor by rising to the bait whenever he is criticized in the U.S. press, suing two virtually unknown American writers for allegedly slandering him, and engaging in a very public war of words with the novelist Doug Preston.
Yet in court, Mignini often sits back and lets his No. 2 take over questioning, especially when the evidence at issue is technical or scientific. Manuela Comodi, his assistant prosecutor, is a wide-awake pit bull who takes no prisoners. In a nearly two-decade career, she has taken down Catholic cardinals, Albanian mafiosi and bank presidents in major corruption and drug cases. She has been leading the attack on the defense team's scientific experts, and her sharp retorts and exasperated outbursts snap sleepy reporters back to attention. During hot afternoons in the summer, she furiously fanned herself with a black, lacy fan and initiated frequent shouting matches with the other lawyers. She is often seen dashing out the side door to inhale a cigarette in the middle of questioning.
Perugia's police murder-squad chief Monica Napoleoni often sits behind Comodi. She shows up for most court sessions even though she is not required to appear dressed like an undercover vice cop by U.S. standards. Her Morticia Addams hair, deep tan, deeper décolletage, hot-pink baby-doll tops, stylish white jeans, high wedgies and designer totes bring a whiff of the Via Veneto into the courtroom. Napoleoni has spent her career working the surprisingly mean streets of this ancient hill town, infested with battling gangs of Albanian and Moroccan drug dealers and a plague of prostitution from international human traffickers who find it a convenient trading post. Napoleoni is occasionally accompanied by another female homicide cop, Lorena Zugarini, who is built like an East German swimmer. It was Zugarini who kicked in one of the doors of the murder house.
According to Knox, these two women were among a group of both male and female cops who browbeat a false confession out of her in the middle of the night almost two years ago. They deny it.
The woman in charge of the heavily criticized scientific evidence against Knox and Sollecito is Patrizia Stefanoni, a young forensic scientist who has spent many hours at the prosecution desk, twirling strands of long, dark hair in her fingers and scowling at the defense team's scientific experts. Stefanoni is highly regarded within the Italian legal system, having passed a series of stringent state tests to join the national Polizia Scientifica in Rome. One of her chief antagonists is defense expert Sara Gino, a whiz-kid forensic expert from Turin who charges that Stefanoni cherry-picked DNA results to profile the suspects, ignoring vast amounts of other biological material. Gino also alleges that Stefanoni lied about test results that didn't back up the police thesis of a drug-fueled sex murder involving Knox. Responding to charges of shoddy work, Stefanoni tartly told an Italian newspaper recently, "Given the fact that DNA doesn't know how to fly [that is, get from one place to another on its own], it is impossible that the samples would have been altered."
The highest-profile defense lawyer is highly paid Roman superstar Giulia Bongiorno, retained by Sollecito, the only defendant of the three who could possibly afford her fee. A member of the Italian Senate and a Berlusconi political ally, she made her name defending former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in a Mob-influence trial in the 1990s. With cropped hair, tennis shoes and expensive man suits under her judicial robe, Bongiorno wages attacks on the prosecution case that are sharply focused and often delivered with a withering blizzard of Neapolitan hand gestures and disdain.
Many of the women in the Knox court have extensive career experience battling the epidemic that plagues Italian women of in-home rapes and murders by their partners. At a conference in 2009, Napoleoni opined that in her experience, it was easier to save prostitutes than married women from cycles of violent attacks because police can arrest prostitutes before it's too late.
Milanese social psychologist Chiara Volpato recently wrote that Italy's women are fed up with Berlusconi's antics and their own boobalicious image and are preparing to revolt. In the Madonna-frescoed courthouse in Perugia, a city of churches and narrow lanes plastered with sacred images of mothers nursing holy babies, the professionalism of these Italian women is definitely on the line. They bear little resemblance to their pole-dancing sisters on Berlusconi's channels. They are absolutely fierce, and the defendant, popularly known as Foxy Knoxy, finds no pity among them.
With reporting by Giulia Alagna / Perugia
Burleigh is writing a book on the Knox case, to be published by Broadway Books in 2011.