Sun, Oct 09, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Guilt written all over her face

Amanda Knox was convicted of murder and her reputation sullied around the world, in large part because of her facial expressions and demeanor. Her story reveals how our instincts about others can be dangerously superficial

By Ian Leslie  /  The Guardian, LONDON

In the days and weeks following the discovery of Meredith Kercher’s body, Italian police found no physical evidence linking Amanda Knox to the murder. But then, they didn’t need it: they could tell Knox was guilty just by looking at her. “We were able to establish guilt,” said Edgardo Giobbi, the lead investigator, “by closely observing the suspect’s psychological and behavioral reaction during the interrogation. We don’t need to rely on other kinds of investigation.” Giobbi said that his suspicions were first raised just hours after the murder, at the crime scene, when he watched Knox execute a provocative swivel of her hips as she put on a pair of shoe covers.

Little about Knox’s behavior during that time matched how the investigators imagined a wrongfully accused woman should conduct herself. She appeared too cool and calm, they said — and yet also, it seems, oddly libidinous. One policeman said she “smelled of sex,” and investigators were particularly disturbed by a video that first appeared on YouTube, shortly after the investigation began, which showed Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in each other’s arms outside the cottage in which Kercher was murdered, as the investigation proceeded inside.

In fact, the video is anything but sexy. Knox, looking wan and dazed, exchanges chaste kisses with Sollecito, who rubs her arm consolingly. But the police professed shock. “Knox and Sollecito would make faces, kiss each other, while there was the body of a friend in those conditions,” tutted Monica Napoleoni, head of Perugia’s murder squad. A detective said he complained to Knox when she sat on Sollecito’s lap, describing her behavior as “inappropriate.” Knox later explained to Rolling Stone magazine, via an intermediary, that she had been pacing up and down when Sollecito pulled her on to his knees to comfort her. The only strange thing about this is that an explanation for simple physical affection became necessary.

The Italian police’s overheated interpretation of Knox’s behavior was a particularly pungent manifestation of a universal trait, one that frequently leads criminal investigators and juries astray: overconfidence in our ability to read someone else’s state of mind simply by looking at them. This is not a uniquely modern error, born of pop psychology books. Shakespeare was wary of it. In Macbeth, he has Duncan remark how hard it is “to find the mind’s construction in the face.” It’s a warning that law enforcement officers often seem unable, or unwilling, to heed.

In 2008 a group of Norwegian researchers ran an experiment to better understand how police investigators come to a judgment about the credibility of rape claims. Sixty-nine investigators were played video-recorded versions of a rape victim’s statement, with the role of victim played by an actress. The wording of the statement in each version was exactly the same, but the actress delivered it with varying degrees of emotion. The investigators, who prided themselves on their objectivity, turned out to be heavily influenced in their judgments by assumptions about the victim’s demeanor: she was judged most credible when crying or showing despair.

In reality, rape victims react in the immediate aftermath of the event in a variety of ways: some are visibly upset; others are subdued and undemonstrative. There is, unsurprisingly, no universal reaction to being raped. The detectives were relying on their instincts, and their instincts turned out to be constructed from inherited and unreliable notions about women in distress.

This story has been viewed 6394 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top