Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Battle beyond the Kercher trial

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Amanda Knox
One US newspaper described Amanda Knox as an "unlucky co-ed".
As the trial of the alleged murderers of Leeds University student Meredith Kercher continues into its fourth week, the courtroom drama is being matched by a passionate battle for public opinion in Italy and beyond.

American supporters of Seattle student Amanda Knox have stepped up their efforts to discredit the evidence of the Italian prosecutors.

The prosecution case is that Amanda Knox, her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, and already-convicted Rudy Guede murdered Meredith during a violent sex game.

Using TV appearances in the US, newspaper stories and friendly internet blog sites, Amanda Knox's supporters have consistently tried to challenge this version.

Doubt has been cast on witnesses, DNA evidence and computer records - all to advance the case that 21-year-old Meredith was murdered by Guede acting alone.

At one point Amanda Knox's supporters even enlisted the support of a senior Seattle lawyer - Judge Mike Heavey - to request, unsuccessfully, that the trial be moved out of Perugia.

This was necessary, said the US judge, because of the "illegal poisoning of public opinion and judicial opinion".

I was told by people attending the charity that Mignini is mentally unstable
West Seattle Herald reporter Steve Shay

But it is the personal attacks launched by Amanda Knox's supporters on Perugia prosecutor Giuliano Mignini that are proving the most controversial.

The allegations have been described as "sliming" by Mr Mignini's supporters. They also say the Perugia jury and Italian public opinion are unlikely to be influenced by personal attacks.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Mignini himself condemned the attacks upon him as an attempt to "influence" Amanda Knox's trial.

Stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, and not as trial prosecutor, he said: "These things might happen in Italy but I really would not expect influence to come from the United States."

Amanda Knox's supporters have accused the Perugia prosecutor of incompetence, being a "raving maniac" and even of harbouring an unhealthy obsession with the occult.

In the past Mr Mignini has condemned what he termed "continuous... and unspeakable attacks" stemming from the US since Meredith was murdered in 2007.

He has now confirmed he has started legal proceedings for defamation against a Seattle newspaper whose website carried reports describing him as "mentally unstable" - a charge Mr Mignini contemptuously denies.

Anne Bremner
We're going to keep up a steady drum beat on getting the truth out
Friends of Amanda spokeswoman Anne Bremner

The West Seattle Herald - which has a circulation of about 12,000 in Amanda Knox's home town - carried the allegations, both in the paper and online, in a report of a fund-raising dinner held in aid of the Seattle-based Friends of Amanda campaign.

After the story appeared, Herald reporter Steve Shay posted a comment on another website confirming that guests at the fund-raising event were briefing against the Italian prosecutor.

"I was told by people attending the charity that Mignini is mentally unstable," he wrote.

"His over-the-top response seems to indicate that this is so."

No-one on the newspaper was available for comment.

Founded last year, the Friends of Amanda organisation aims to "counter the lurid tabloid accounts" of Amanda's trial, and to "present the public with... crucial evidence that irrefutably proves Amanda's innocence."

Their spokeswomen, Seattle lawyer Anne Bremner, is careful to distance the group from the more colourful insults directed against the Perugia prosecutor.

"We have not made any personal attacks," she said.

But she is keen to publicise a separate investigation by Italian judicial authorities into Mr Mignini's alleged "abuse of power" during another murder inquiry connected to the "Monster of Florence" serial killer case.

"We do have concerns that the prosecutor in this [Meredith Kercher] case has been indicted himself," she said.

Ms Bremner also said the prosecutor had previously "relied upon a spiritual medium" to solve the Florence case and quotes a senior Florentine minister as saying Mr Mignini had fallen "prey to a sort of delirium".

It all provided, said Ms Bremner, "a frightening parallel" to Meredith Kercher's trial in which Mr Mignini initially suggested that Amanda Knox had been taking part in a bizarre "Halloween rite".

That theory was rejected last year by the trial judge, and Mr Mignini has not advanced it since.

Mr Mignini rejected both allegations made by Ms Bremner.

He said a court in Florence had cleared him of abuse of power charges - but a city prosecutor had decided to proceed against him nonetheless.

Giuliano Mignini
Mr Mignini says he is tired of refuting the same allegations.

And he insisted he was "not friendly" with the alleged medium, Gabriella Carlizzi - and had had her arrested in 2005.

Supporters of the Perugia prosecutor have interpreted the attacks on Mr Mignini as part of a misdirected strategy to discredit the prosecution's case against Amanda Knox.

Some say that case has got stronger since the trial began last month.

First, there was a report from trial judge, Paolo Micheli, in which he concluded Amanda Knox had opened the door to Meredith's killer.

And last week there were more awkward moments for the defence as the court heard that a knife with Meredith's DNA on it had been found in Mr Sollecito's apartment.

Mr Mignini's supporters said the mounting evidence against Amanda Knox is increasing pressure on her supporters to undermine the prosecution.

But they warned that those attacks risk alienating the very people - the Italian public and Perugia jury - who they want to convince.

Worse still for the Seattle campaigners, it appears their strategy has backfired with their own defence team.

Defence lawyer Luciano Ghirga reportedly told Italian newspaper La Nazione last week: "The attempts to discredit everyone from the police at the crime scene to the lead prosecutor in the case are blatantly obvious."

He also said he had "expressed his impressions" to Mr Mignini.

Peter Quennell, of the New York-based True Justice for Meredith Kercher website, which has been closely following the investigation, said: "Mignini is popular in Italy. He is regarded as doing a good job and is seen as very pro-victim and pro-family."

Meredith Kercher
Meredith was found stabbed to death in her bedroom in 2007

He added: "Even if he was forced off the case, the trial would continue - there is another prosecutor and the whole thing is under way."

The Italian author of a book on Meredith Kercher's murder, Fiorenza Sarzanini, agrees. She said: "These attacks on Mignini don't count for much as far as the jury is concerned."

Amanda Knox's family are currently attempting to have Ms Sarzanini's book - Amanda and the Others - banned in Italy.

They say much of the book is based upon Amanda's personal writings, and that its frank recounting of her private life runs the risk of prejudicing her trial.

But Ms Sarzanini said: "It is what the jury sees and hears in the courtroom that is important.

"The overwhelming feeling here [in Italy] is that the real victim is still Meredith Kercher - not Amanda Knox."

Ms Sarzanini believed that, having chosen to highlight an indictment against Mr Mignini, the Knox campaigners fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Italian judicial system.

"Really, these things are not unusual here," she said.

Back in Seattle, Anne Bremner said the Friends of Amanda campaign is starting to change negative media perceptions of the 21-year-old accused student.

Ms Bremner provided as proof a New York newspaper story this week that described Amanda as possibly "an incredibly unlucky college co-ed caught up in a sensational crime of which she may be innocent".

"We're going to keep up a steady drum beat on getting the truth out," she said.

"We have seen countless instances of where information from here has found its way into Italy."

Rudy Guede
Amanda Knox's supporters insist killer Rudy Guede acted alone

On whether she thought the campaign would succeed, she said: "I am hoping for the best and bracing for the worst."

Fellow supporters are similarly reluctant to express outright optimism.

Private investigator Paul Ciolino looked into the Kercher murder investigation on behalf of US TV network CBS.

He said he discovered "major flaws" in the prosecution case.

It was he who described Mr Mignini was a "raving out-of-control maniac who has no business prosecuting parking tickets, never mind capital murder cases".

But he appeared resigned to the convictions of the two young students.

"This case is a runaway train," he said. "Their best hope lies in an appeal.

"Hopefully after they are convicted somebody with some common sense will ask themselves, 'how did this happen?'"

Meanwhile, the man prosecuting the case against Amanda Knox expressed frustration about dealing with allegations that he insisted he had previously refuted.

"I have said these these things many times to American journalists," he said. "But there are none so deaf as those who will not hear."

Additional reporting by Danielle Gambazza

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