Murder and Passion in Perugia Italy

perugia-italy-photograph

 

“Guilty,” Francesco said with a hand slap on the table. “Amanda Knox is guilty. “The bleach proves it conclusively.”

“The bleach?” I asked. “What bleach?”

“The bleach, you know. She went to the store the morning after the murder to buy bleach. She said it was to do the wash.”

It was clear that my friend Francesco knew every detail of Meredith Kercher’s murder. It took place in Perugia, his home town, as did the Knox trial, which was in progress at that moment.

The Amanda Knox case had consumed the conversation both during and after dinner at Kathy and Francesco’s house, which sits on a Perugia hillside. Usually the dinner-table talk centered on food, as it often does in Italy. But the Knox case had captivated Francesco. I could see it in his eyes. Before the trial was over, he and almost every resident of Perugia had formed opinions and shared them vehemently. It was more than the talk of the town, it was the passion of Perugia.  

“It can’t be any other way,” he said. “She bought the bleach, but it wasn’t for laundry. She used it to clean up the blood.”

 “Aspetta.” Wait, he said as he went to find proof.

 

* * *

Amanda Knox was found guilty but a Perugia judge overturned her conviction. Now the Italian Supreme Court has ordered a new trial. The continuing sage has been explored by the international press, every detail examined. The latest ruling has renewed worldwide interest and reignited Italian passion, but for an observer, it presents a dilemma: Nothing to add, too big to ignore.

And frankly, too close to ignore. I was living in the provence of Perugia both before the murder and during the trial. I often drove the 30 miles to the provincial capital city to take care of personal business, to shop, to take in a movie or to dine with Kathy and Francesco.

So I had gotten to know the city and could distinguish Perugia during the trial from Perugia before the murder. This is a city that traces its roots to the Etruscan period, at least 300 years before the birth of Christ. It was one of the 12 confederate cities of Etruria. The evolution of western civilization can be seen in its buildings and churches, in the stone of its streets and in the fabric of its society. It is a city that has maintained its grace over 2,300 years of war and peace, feast and famine.  

The case of Amanda Knox would have no historic impact on this city that outlived empires. There would be no physical legacy. But it had a momentary grip on the psyche of the people of Perugia … people like Kathy and Francesco.

 

* * *

Francesco returned to the dinner table with a newspaper. He pointed to an article which detailed the account of the grocer who sold the bleach to Knox. This was Francesco’s Exhibit A.

 “That’s what I tell my friends at work. It’s inescapable proof,” Francesco said.

But I was less interested in the proof than the passion. “Does everyone at your workplace talk about it?” I asked.

“Everyone.” He tilted his head and looked directly in my eyes, insisting on my understanding. “Tutti giorni. Sempre. (All day. Constantly.)”

Francesco speaks very little English. I’ve come to think of him as the quintessential Italian. He works hard, cooks well and has a twinkle in his eyes like a mischievous schoolboy. Above all, he has an easy smile, limitless energy and firm convictions.

 “Are they as obsessed as you?” I asked. 

The California born-and-raised Kathy fielded that one. “It’s all that anyone talks about. But Francesco talks about it at work and doesn’t stop when he gets home. It consumes him.  I doubt that anyone is as obsessed as Francesco.”

* * *

Perugia is a hilltop city noted for its art, its chocolate and its university. St. Francis was born there. Raphael painted there. So did Vannucci, who is known as Perugino. Perugia also lent its name to Perugina chocolate and the University of Perugia, both know widely around the world, the former for its famous “baci” candy kisses and the latter as one of the world’s foremost foreign-language universities.

It is the central city in Umbria, the agricultural heartland of Italy. It is as pastoral and peaceful as it is beautiful. The panorama from almost any vantage point to the south, east and north is spectacular … breathtaking. On a clear day, St. Francis’s adopted town of Assisi, 20 kilometers to the east, is easily within view. You can see it from the center-city courthouse where Knox was tried.

The “Tribunale” or courthouse is situated among Medieval and Renaissance buildings on Via Baglioni, which runs parallel to Perugia’s shop-lined main street, Corso Pietro Vannucci. On trial days, the piazza directly in front of the courthouse was a frenzy of activity. Carabinieri cruisers, television vans and prison transports – which carried Knox and co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito to and from court – were parked haphazardly. The police, the press and passers-by watched as TV reporters did their interviews. But a mere block or two away, there was little evidence that an international spotlight was shining on this community. 

A park sits on a ridge at the south end of the Corso Vannuci. It serves as a balcony, which overlooks the Umbrian valleys south of Perugia. An annual jazz festival is held there each June. The university for stranieri (foreigners) is at the north end of the Corso just beyond the Etruscan Arch that serves as the north porta (entrance) to the city. Physically, all seemed normal from south to north on the Corso. But at Perugia’s outdoor cafes, in the gelateria and pasticceria and on the steps of the 14th century cathedral of San Lorenzo, this high drama, this reality opera was at the heart of animated and omnipresent debate.      

 

* * *

Our dinner conversation drifted away from the Knox trial briefly. There is an olive grove adjacent to Kathy and Francesco’s house and a garden in front, from which they harvest vegetables that they use in making the most delicious dinners. I wanted to know about harvesting olives and made a date with Kathy to try my hand.

But Francesco prodded us back to murder, perhaps because murder had never touched him so closely or so profoundly. Murder is rare in Italy and sensational murder – the kind that focuses the attention of the world on his backyard – is unique. Italy has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, fewer than one person in 100,000. That’s five times lower than the rate in the United States. (In fact, Italy’s rate of violence is more than six times lower than that of the United States.) When you consider that 23 percent of Italy’s murders are mafia related, you can see than murder rarely touches the average citizen.

Francesco commented on the fact that world attention had not only come to his city, it had come to his neighborhood. Kathy and Francesco live on the north side of Perugia, not far from the university attended by Kercher and Knox. From the university’s Piazza Fortebraccio one can look beyond the 3rd century BC Etruscan Arch (aka Arch of Augustus) to the apartment where Knox lived and Kercher died.

 

As a postscript, Francesco found a little justice in this week’s Supreme Court ruling. Ivorian drifter and drug dealer Rudy Guede is serving a 16-years sentence for his part as an accomplice in the Kercher murder. Francesco said earlier this week that, “It’s not fair that he is the only one to be punished.” 

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