There is a concept in philosophy known as “Occam’s razor,” which posits that among competing theories or hypotheses, the one requiring the fewest assumptions generally makes the most sense. Another way of stating it is that the simplest theory should be employed until, or unless, that hypothesis can be replaced by one that encompasses greater and deeper explanation. The “razor” refers to “shaving away” layers of complexity.
The great Bertrand Russell’s interpretation was “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.”
Of late, we have seen no greater violation of the Occam’s razor principle in the field of criminal justice than the investigation and prosecution of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. And yesterday’s release of Florence appeals Judge Alessandro Nencini’s “Motivation Document” on the January 30, 2014 re-conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito (after initial conviction, appeals acquittal, and Supreme Court rejection of the acquittal) only confirms this violation.
All of the legitimate evidence – all of it – pointed to a vicious but unfortunately not uncommon crime: Rudy Guede, an African emigre ne’er-do-well with an established history of break-ins and thefts while carrying a knife, broke into the upstairs flat of a cottage on the outskirts of Perugia on the night after Halloween. Four women occupied the flat. The downstairs flat was occupied by four men whom Guede knew from playing basketball, and he had met the women upstairs. Because it was All Souls Day, a traditional family holiday in Italy, he had reason to hope the cottage would be empty. He threw a rock through one bedroom window and when no one reacted, he knew the coast was clear and climbed in. He ransacked that bedroom for valuables and then went to look in other rooms.
For whatever reason of nerves or what he’d eaten previously, he had to relieve himself in the closest bathroom. While sitting on the toilet, he heard a noise indicating someone had come home. Without flushing the toilet and alerting this person to his presence, he rose and followed the sound, where he confronted Meredith Kercher in her bedroom. Since she would recognize him, he panicked and attempted to disable her. A fierce struggle ensued in which Guede stabbed her repeatedly with his knife, then sexually assaulted her as a crime of opportunity when she could no longer fight back. He tried to clean up some of the copious blood with towels from the bathroom, threw her comforter over her body, rifled her purse for cash and credit cards, took her two cell phones, and exited through the front door, leaving distinctive footprints in blood that corresponded to Nike athletic shoes he owned.
He fled the country the next day, but fingerprints at the crime scene identified him to police and when his DNA sample was taken, it matched voluminous traces on, in, and around Meredith’s body. There was no evidence of anyone else’s DNA. A tiny trace on Meredith’s bra clasp, not collected until weeks after the murder, was ultimately discredited as belonging to Raffaele Sollecito. A tiny trace on the tip of an arbitrarily selected kitchen knife from Raffaele’s flat was ultimately discredited as belonging to Meredith. That represents all of the physical evidence.
Instead of going with this straightforward and evidence-substantiated scenario, police and prosecutors came up with a theory of three assailants, claiming that Amanda and Raffaele, who had been at his flat at the time of the murder, must have been involved with the murder. At first, Public Minister and prosecutor Giuliano Mignini posited a satanic ritual murder conceived by Amanda. He then switched to a sex orgy in which Amanda killed Meredith for not wanting to participate. He and other prosecutors then switched to an argument over money, before finally declaring that the motive did not matter, because the evidence was so overwhelming. The latest prosecution theory of the case cast out the sexual aspects, kept the argument over money, and added a quarrel between Meredith and Amanda over Amanda “letting” Rudy not flush the toilet after defecating.
The only “evidence” was a hazy confession forced out of Amanda after hours of interrogation by a twelve-person team of police detectives during which she was exhausted, denied food and sanitary facilities and scared out of her wits to the point that she was in a dreamlike (or nightmarish) state. All experienced interrogators know how to prompt false confessions. I guarantee you I can get you to confess to alien abduction if you give me enough time and human resources.
Nencini’s document states that his court convicted Amanda and Raffaele because of evidence showing that more than one individual killed Meredith, based on her wounds. There is no such evidence.
He states, “There was an argument, then an elevation and progression of aggression.” There is no such evidence.
He states that during Amanda’s interrogation, her false accusation of Patrick Lumumba, the owner of the bar where she worked part-time, proved her guilt. That is totally illogical reasoning. Had Amanda actually been involved, she would have known of Guede’s involvement and fingered him to save herself. The police brought up Lumumba’s name after seeing a text exchange on her cell phone and said they “knew” the two of them were together that night. There is no such evidence.
He states that the murder weapon contains Amanda’s DNA on the handle. She acknowledges using the knife in Raffaele’s kitchen. The knife could not be the murder weapon as it does not match Meredith’s wounds.
These obvious anomalies go on and on.
On the other hand, the behavioral evidence against Guede is as compelling as the scientific evidence. As Nina Burleigh, author of the excellent book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, wrote in a CNN column the day after the latest verdict:
“In the months before the Kercher murder, Guede was broke and showing signs of mental illness, and was involved in three and possibly more home invasions, according to police reports, trial testimony and interviews with victims.
“His apparent modus operandi was to break into what he thought were empty houses and make himself at home. A few weeks before the Kercher murder, someone broke into a Perugia law office through a second floor window, according to trial testimony from the lawyer who practiced there, turned up the heat, rearranged small trinkets, drank an orange soda from the refrigerator and appeared to have slept on the couch before making off with a laptop.
“At a nursery school in Milan a week later, director Maria Antonietta Salvadori Del Prato, walked in on a Saturday and found Guede sitting at her desk, she told me in an interview. She called police. They found the stolen laptop and a knife in his pack. Del Prato suspected he might have gotten a key to the nursery school from one of her employees who frequented the Milan club scene. Del Prato told me she believed he spent a night on the children’s cots and cooked a pot of pasta in the kitchen, then placed it in little bowls around the room.
“From that interview and many more, I pieced together a picture of a young man who seemed to be acting out some sort of fantasy of a home, a fantasy that perhaps abruptly cracked when Meredith Kercher came home unexpectedly while he was burgling her house, and unwittingly locked herself into the house with him. (Guede has maintained “whoever committed this terrible crime is still free.”)”
So, why violate Occam’s razor when there is such a straightforward and obvious explanation of this crime?
Because the Italian investigators got it wrong to begin with and would not reverse themselves, worried about losing face.
Because the Italian investigators had a confirmation bias against a pretty American girl who was sleeping with a handsome Italian boy she had met only a few days before.
Because much of the Italian judicial system was unwilling to admit that the evidence collection and testing was botched and violated international standards.
Because the stories of satanic murder, a sex orgy among beautiful women and even two girls fighting over money and hygiene are far “better” stories than a simple break-in, a sexual assault of opportunity and a murder of criminal necessity.
Because under this scenario, Meredith, Amanda and Raffaele become much more “interesting” than the normal, attractive, intelligent and hard-working kids they were.
From an investigative perspective, this tragedy was not a complicated or difficult case.
And it took a tremendous amount of effort to make it into one.