Amanda Knox's Appeal: A Case of Too Little DNA?

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Stefano Medici / AP

Amanda Knox, center, arrives in civil court in Perugia, Italy, on Thursday, March 24, 2011, for a hearing after her lawyers asked for the sequester of the film Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy

The eight Italians who will decide the fate of Amanda Knox, the American college student who is appealing a 2009 conviction of the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher, won't officially consider a review of the DNA evidence for more than another month. But they're unlikely to have missed the news, leaked to an Italian news agency this past week and picked up by newspapers and television, that the investigators have been unable to find enough genetic material on the knife that Knox and her Italian co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito are alleged to have used to stab Kercher in a sex game gone wrong. Nor are the judges and jurors likely to have missed the jousting by lawyers for and against the accused, as both sides rushed to explain what the insufficient DNA evidence might mean for the case.

"If it's true, it would be positive for the kids," says Luciano Ghirga, one of Knox's lawyers, who says he learned of the leak from news accounts. "Then you'd have to look at the analysis that was done during the first trial, which we've always sustained was not done properly." Kercher's bra clasp, another crucial piece of evidence, was judged to be too rusty to be re-examined.

In the Italian justice system, it pays to play to the press. Most trials are presided over by professional magistrates, but some — like Knox's — also include a panel of jurors known as "citizen judges." Unlike in the U.S., where those deciding a case are carefully screened for bias and sequestered during the proceedings, Italian jurors are not only free to hold preconceived opinions; they're also at liberty to follow the news of the trial as it unfolds, leaving them vulnerable to swings in popular sentiment. Leaks like the one that broke this past week open the possibility that by the time the evidence is officially presented on May 21, the minds of the jurors will already have been made up. "This is a way to play with public opinion," says Francesco Maresca, a lawyer representing the murdered woman's family. "Obviously, somebody put it in circulation to cause confusion."

During the original trial, the DNA analysis was the most contested aspect of the case against Knox and her co-defendant, and much of Knox's appeal was expected to turn on a re-examination of that evidence. Lawyers for the defendants criticized the investigator for relying on too small an amount of genetic material on the knife's handle, which linked Knox to the alleged murder weapon. The bra clasp, they added, may have borne Sollecito's DNA, but it had been kicked around the apartment for weeks before being discovered by the police and was thus subject to contamination.

In an interview with TIME, Maresca stresses that the fact that the court-appointed independent analysts were unable to find large amounts of DNA does not mean the original investigation was flawed. "You may not be able to repeat the analysis," he says. "But this doesn't imply that it was carried out badly in the first place. These are two questions that are completely separate. This news doesn't change anything." He adds that his sources had told him that the little bit of DNA that researchers were able to glean had been found in the same location as in the original analysis. "This is a confirmation of what had been done before," he says.

For much the same reasons, Knox's lawyers have tried to contain the potential damage from a made-for-television movie that aired in the U.S. in February, in which Kercher's murder is re-enacted according to the verdict from the original trial. On Thursday, March 24, Knox, who is serving a 26-year sentence, appeared in court to ask that the judge ban the movie — titled Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy — from distribution in Italy and on the Internet. "I am distressed by this invasion into my life and the way my life is being exploited," Knox, 23, told the judge, according to her lawyers. "We want to stop the movie from being diffused in Italy," says Ghirga. "There have been books published. The news talks about it constantly. But this movie spells out so many details."

On the matter of the movie, those backing the accused are in agreement with supporters of the victim's family, who have described the depiction of the murder as "horrific and distressing." Asked what he thinks of the movie, Maresca, the Kercher family's lawyer, answers, "It's obviously ill timed and out of place when there's an appeals trial going on." But given the importance of public opinion, does it help the case against Knox? "Sure," says Maresca. "It completely reconstructs the events as we've always sustained they happened."