Amanda Knox and the 21st-Century Witch Hunt

A new Netflix documentary unpacks how a 20-year-old college student from Seattle got painted as a twisted, sexually deviant murderer.


Late in Amanda Knox, a new documentary by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn that premieres this week on Netflix, the woman who’s at the center of the film asks a question. “What’s more likely,” she says, “that I get together this boyfriend who I’ve had for five days, and this guy [who] I don’t even know his name, tell them to rape my roommate and then I stab her to death? Or that a guy who regularly committed burglaries broke into my home, found Meredith, took advantage of her, killed her, and ran off?”

It’s a straightforward enough inquiry, but it’s one that somehow escaped the prosecutors, the tabloids, and the general public in 2007, when Knox was arrested for the murder of the British student Meredith Kercher in the Italian city of Perugia. Over the next four years, while Knox and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted twice and then acquitted twice, the dominant media narrative was that Knox was a sex-crazed freak who used her wiles to persuade two men to kill her innocent English roommate in a deviant orgy gone wrong. Few thought to ask what her motive might have been, or how probable it was that a goofy college student might also be a psychopathic murderer.

Amanda Knox joins a number of recent true-crime documentaries and fictionalized retellings that have revisited splashy crimes from the past 25 years, but its focus isn’t on who killed Kercher. Rather, the movie considers how a 20-year-old linguistics major could have become the focus of such a frenzied and hysterical witch hunt, not to mention one of the most notorious murder suspects of the 21st century. If this particular focus has a flaw, it’s that it sidelines Kercher, who’s little more than a image throughout the movie. But as an indictment of a number of institutions than failed dismally in their mission to uncover the truth about who killed her, Amanda Knox is sharp, and frequently enraging.

In its opening scenes, the movie revisits the salient details of the crime, splicing crime-scene footage of Kercher’s body left in her bedroom with old home videos of Amanda newly arrived in Italy. But the most notable feature is Knox herself, with short hair and a simple boatnecked shirt in the present day, talking directly to the camera about the events leading up to the murder. At the time, she explains, “I was quirky, and I was okay with that, and I was ridiculous, and I was okay with that.” Arriving in Perugia, and finding her school schedule to be much lighter than she’d expected, she got a job in a bar, and soon met Sollecito at a concert, after which they fell in love and spent five nights together at his house, including the night Kercher was murdered.

So much of the suspicion around Knox at the time seemed to stem from the fact that she didn’t respond to the death of her roommate the way people thought she should have—that she kissed Sollecito outside the house while investigators were casing the scene, and did cartwheels in the police station while the pair were being interviewed. Later, after being interviewed into the middle of the night, told that Sollecito had turned on her, and slapped by the officers interrogating her, Knox falsely told them that she had been at the house, and had seen her boss, the bar owner Patrick Lumumba there. It was at this point that both prosecutors and the media seemed to decide she was guilty, despite the fact that false confessions are remarkably common under duress. “Of course she did it, she’s mad, a complete and utter loon,” is how the journalist Nick Pisa sums up reactions to Knox’s strange behavior to the camera. “Who behaves like that?”

The brilliance of Amanda Knox is how much leeway Blackhurst and McGinn give Pisa, a journalist for The Daily Mail at the time, and Giuliano Mignini, a public prosecutor, to indict themselves. Both, in interviews, express how proud they were to be able to advance their careers so publicly by working on such a high-profile case. In Britain, Kercher’s home country, readers ate up the most salacious details about a case Pisa describes as a dream story, filled with murder, intrigue, and mystery. In Perugia, the public wanted an arrest as soon as possible, and the fact that Kercher’s body had been covered with a blanket by her killer, coupled with Knox’s strange behavior, led Mignini to deduce that Knox had killed her roommate in a “sex game gone wrong.” His team leaked the information to the tabloids. “We managed to get it out to the British press before anyone else,” Pisa describes, gleefully.

Some of the details the film reveals are mind-boggling: In prison, Knox had a blood test, after which doctors told her she was HIV-positive. The diagnosis was false, and was essentially a mind game devised by the police and the prosecution, but before it was corrected Knox wrote a diary detailing all seven of the lovers she’d had, wondering which one could have given her the disease. The diary was naturally given to the press. Even after DNA evidence pointed to the murderer being neither Knox nor Sollecito but a convicted criminal named Rudy Guede who’d recently fled Perugia, Mignini and the press remained convinced that Knox had somehow been involved. Knox was thus reinvented in the public sphere as “Foxy Knoxy” (her MySpace name at the time), a sexually rapacious and perverted killer who’d persuded both Guede and Sollecito to kill Kercher. “I am convinced that Rudy and Sollecito were trying to indulge Amanda that night,” Mignini tells the camera. “Pleasure at all cost.”

The media maelstrom wasn’t limited to the U.K., although in the U.S. there was more of a hope that Knox might be innocent. Archive footage features a male newscaster lamenting that Knox looks pale and unglamorous in court, saying, “She probably could use hair and makeup, but I guess you don’t get that in jail.” Donald Trump even has a cameo, wherein he calls for the president to get involved, and for Americans to boycott Italy. After Amanda is finally released, a TV journalist tells her father that the longer she waits to sell her story, the lower the price will be. “I’m not really looking at her as a hot property,” the shell-shocked Mr. Knox responds.

Although there’s a happy ending of sorts, the impact the case has had on both Knox and Sollecito is starkly visible. The filmmakers also point fleetingly to the ways in which the botched investigation has affected Kercher’s family, most of whom seem convinced of Knox’s guilt, and thus have to live with knowing that the person most famously accused of killing their daughter walks free. While Amanda Knox is clear on who’s to blame, it doesn’t offer neat conclusions, or any insight into how another 21st-century witch hunt like this one can be avoided. “I think people love monsters, and when they get the chance, they want to see them,” Knox tells the camera, mulling what happened to her. “We’re all afraid, and fear makes people crazy.”