An Interview with Candace Dempsey, Author of Murder in Italy
Always intrigued by the Amanda Knox case, a few months ago we picked up Murder in Italy, released earlier this year. The true crime novel, which we called "a fascinating read", follows the investigation and conviction of Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, and Rudy Guede of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. (More backstory on the book over at Crosscut). We recently spoke with author and Seattleite Candace Demspey on the process of researching and developing the book and the ongoing saga of the case's trial and appeals process.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your experience as a journalist.
I’m a Italian-American writer whose life got sideswiped by the Amanda Knox case. Before I got pulled in, I’d been a magazine editor, a newspaper editor and a Web producer at MSN. I’d written for many newspapers and magazines, including The Chicago Tribune, and my travel stories had been published in many anthologies. I fully intended to do a travel book called “From Rome to Africa,” but once I began covering Amanda’s case, I couldn’t write about anything else.
Everything changed in November 2007. I’d just returned from the Rome to Tunisia adventure when I heard that British student Meredith Kercher had been murdered in Perugia, Seattle’s sister city. Amanda Knox, the main suspect, was from Seattle, my hometown. She was an honor student at the University of Washington.
All of that struck me as horribly ironic and sad. Because who hasn’t dreamed of Italy? Who wouldn’t want to study there? I’d dreamed of doing that myself, but I’m the middle child of seven children. I worked my way through college. I could barely afford my tuition, let alone anything extra.
Why made you so interested in the Amanda Knox case?
It’s a once-in-a century crime story. Sex, drugs, lies, videotape, money, beautiful young people. Characters that John Grisham couldn’t invent. Trial by media in Italy, the U.S. and the U.K. Paparazzi. British tabloids. Facebook, MySpace, leaked diaries, wiretaps, a prosecutor under indictment.
It reads like a novel, but it’s all true: Two lovely college students from two different nations dream of studying in a hilltop town and become roommates. Right after Halloween night, one roommate is stabbed to death; the other is locked up for killing her. Why? How? What does it mean? Who’s telling the truth?
The Amanda Knox case is a train wreck. I couldn’t look away. I still can’t.
When did you start covering the case?
Right away. I wrote about Meredith’s horrific murder on my blog and got a tremendous reaction from all over the world. But nobody wanted to talk about the victim. They only wanted to shout about this horrible Amanda Knox, aka “Angel Face,” “Foxy Knoxy,” “Luciferina.” The girl the Italians called “a huntress of men, insatiable in bed.” I didn’t know anything about Amanda Knox. Didn’t know anybody who knew her. But my readers wanted her lynched. They said it was too bad that Italy didn’t have the electric chair.
That made me curious. Who killed Meredith Kercher? How did Amanda Knox become the prime suspect? Could she possibly be innocent?
In those days Amanda Knox’s guilt was simply assumed, everywhere in the world. She was Meredith’s killer. Case closed. I wondered how we could be so sure. She was an excellent student and had no motive. No criminal record. She’d known Raffaele Sollecito, her boyfriend and supposed co-conspirator, only six days. Raffaele had never met Rudy Guede, their alleged co-conspirator.
So I started checking the facts. Murder in Italy grew out of that.
Can you give me a rough timeline of how the book came together?
In February 2008, I pitched Murder in Italy at the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference. By then I had many sources in Italy and the U.S. and was working on the Amanda Knox case 24/7. At Whidbey I met thriller writer William Dietrich, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter, and he gave me tips on how to research a crime tale. He referred me to his agent, Andrew Stuart, who sold Murder In Italy to Penguin/Berkley Books.
Also at Whidbey I met Erik Larson, the author of The Devil in the White City, and he advised me to write Murder in Italy in chronological order, focusing on Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox. That’s what I did.
Instead of just reproducing the courtroom drama, I used the testimony to weave a complete tale, a la Ann Rule of Seattle, my favorite crime writer. The book unfolds like a movie, starting with a happy Italian Halloween. I divided it into three acts, ending with Amanda and Raffaele’s conviction.
Were you ever concerned that you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on enough of the source material to research and write a book?
Never. Perugia is like a true crime store. Italians leak everything from autopsy photos to letters, diaries, videos, and wiretaps. All of those I used in the book, along with the courtroom testimony. I went to Perugia often, at great personal expense, and interviewed the key players, including prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. In addition, the suspects all kept Facebooks, MySpace pages. I interviewed Amanda’s family and friends, in Seattle and Perugia. I was in court when Meredith’s friends testified; I used their actual words in the book, never needing to invent or exaggerate anything. As one tabloid reporter said in regards to the amount of information out there, “It was a feast.”
In fact, my only problem was trimming the book down. My fabulous editor, Shannon Jamieson Vasquez, said I had enough for eight books. She’s Italian-American, had studied in Perugia, is fluent in Italian, and had edited many mystery books. She helped me decide what to leave in, what to take out. We had to delete fascinating tidbits that were “tangential to the plot.”
Is there a reason why you chose not to include a cross-reference or index in this book?
Murder in Italy is a true crime book. Jack Olsen’s Salt of the Earth and Timothy Egan’s Breaking Blue, two favorite crime books of mine, also lack indexes. That’s pretty typical of the genre. My book does have photos, a timeline and a detailed character guide. You always know who is who and what happened when.
I’m a big fan of what suspects and witnesses write down, what they say under oath, the closer to the actual crime the better. Memory plays strange tricks. Listening to gossip is fun, but if police floated a rumor but didn’t defend it in court, then it didn’t make it into my book. You can trust what I wrote, in other words. It’s all based in fact. I am quoting directly from the documents.
More than two years. I started in November 2007 and finished after the verdict in December 2009. I was lucky because I got a book deal early on and had the luxury of working on the case night and day. I live in Seattle, where many events played out, and was often in Perugia. I was on the phone and email all the time. It was intense. And it’s not over. I’m continuing to blog about the case. I was in Perugia this summer. It was surreal to see Murder in Italy on sale in the Rome airport.
Can you highlight any notable mistranslations or cultural misunderstandings that have cropped up in this case?
Certainly the playing around with Amanda’s text message to her boss Patrick Lumumba on the night of the murder was the worst. For police to contend that “Okay, see you later, good night” actually meant “Let’s get together and kill my roommate” was a giant stretch. Then there was the translating of Foxy Knoxy, Amanda’s childhood name, into “Evil Fox” in court documents.
As for Amanda, far better that she’d never talked about her schoolgirl sex life in Italy. We spent hours and hours on Amanda Knox’s condoms, vibrator, and lovers in court, as if sex were “a gateway crime to murder,” to quote Murder in Italy.
And actually, Amanda Knox was no huntress. Only once did she have sex in the cottage, the police had to admit, and that was with a Roman student who was good friends with Meredith’s boyfriend. And we’d been told that Amanda entertained a cafeteria list of men.
Why was that glossed over in the evidence against her? She was portrayed as a sexual deviant.
Again, Amanda Knox talked freely about her sex life. That isn’t done in Italy, except among close friends. If you’re discreet, you get away with many things.
And her specifically being from Seattle?
Amanda Knox prided herself on being a free spirit. I adore Italy, but it’s not the quirky Northwest, where we “celebrate individual differences.” Italians strive to cut a bella figura, adhering to rules, maintaining a lovely image. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. That’s still good advice.
What are your thoughts on all the misinformation out there on this case?
The Amanda Knox case is tabloid heaven. Truth is the first casualty. Many people are making money out of trashing an American girl. Italian police leaked a lot of dubious information about Amanda in the early days and reporters just typed it up. Cops said that she called her alleged conspirator Rudy Guede before and after the crime, for instance, even though they knew he didn’t even own a phone. That information is still on the Web, uncorrected. Even the Times of London is guilty of taking dictation from Italian police and prosecutors. So when I read that Americans are unfamiliar with the prosecution case, I am incredulous. For a long time, that’s all they heard.
But Amanda and Raffaele and Rudy were convicted in an Italian court, regardless of what’s been reported, or written. And that public perception is still there.
Yes, Italians tell me two things: We have DNA on Amanda Knox. And she knows something—meaning they’re sure she was in the house when the murder happened. Maybe she wasn’t the killer, they say, but she was there.
Still, Amanda and Raffaele have two appeals coming. Public opinion could shift slightly in late November, when they get their first shot. Remember that Rudy Guede, their alleged co-conspirator, got his sentence lowered from 30 to 16 years upon first appeal. And she has a good chance of getting out on the final appeal.
I’d also like to ask you about this person Luciano Aviello, who has been reported as coming forward with information that his brother had confessed to Meredith’s murder.
Yes, Aviello is a jailed wise guy who claims that he hid Meredith’s missing keys and some bloody things for his brother. Well, who knows? Italian police could end the suspense by simply going to his house and checking out the story. But they don’t do it.
Why do you believe the police choose not to follow up this lead or otherwise seemed to have ignored certain evidence? An example would be the bloody shoe print you mention in your book.
That’s the fairness issue that the defense has brought up. Some of the prosecution “super-witnesses” literally seemed crazy, but the court “heard” them. It’s only fair to follow up on the same kinds of leads that might benefit the defense. And certainly the Italian police must have known that the bloody shoeprint at the murder scene wasn’t Raffaele’s. He wore Nike shoes with distinctive circles on the soles. They had no blood on them. All they had to do was count the circles on the bloody shoeprint and compare that to Raffaele’s shoes. Perugia police can count just as easily as the defense can. This is what Italians call being “fake stupid.”
That’s an interesting parallel to the Monster of Florence investigation as well, in terms of bringing in these...vagabonds to testify for the prosecution. Do you have any comments on the parallels between the two cases?
Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini plays the heavy in both the Knox case and the Monster of Florence murder investigation. In Murder in Italy, I compare Amanda’s forceful interrogation by Mignini to Douglas Preston’s frightening experience with the same prosecutor
Mignini is an interesting person in real life, bright, cultured. I’ve seen him on the Corso many times and I did interview him. He has a folksy manner. But watch out in court.
He’s fixated on group conspiracy crimes and has a fear of Manga comic books and other modern cultural influences. He demonizes female sexuality and is obsessed with the occult. His final arguments were of Salem-witch-trial ferocity.
What has the overall reaction been to your book?
I love it when people tell me that Murder in Italy reads like a novel. That means I’ve told a good tale, as well as done the hard reporting. I also like it when people come to my readings, have opposite ideas about Amanda’s guilt, and yet can have civil conversations. That never happens on the Internet, where everything is polarized and vicious. I’ve had husbands and wives disagree completely about the case and yet tell me that they enjoyed talking to each other about my book.
What would you recommend people read in terms of learning about or continuing to follow this case?
Ann Wise of ABC News is bilingual, was in court all the time, and does a fantastic job of staying neutral. Her stories are up on the ABC site. For ongoing coverage, I recommend my seattlepi.com blog, plus Perugia Shock by blogger Frank Sfarzo, a bilingual Italian investigative reporter based in Perugia. Sites created to support Amanda Knox include Injustice in Perugia, View from Wilmington and Science Spheres. I always read Corriere dellUmbria, Il Messaggero, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica online.
And of course, I recommend Murder in Italy. I love it when readers email email@example.com and tell me what they think.