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December 7, 2008

Italian Murder Mystery

italian exchange student murder

Amanda's mother, Edda Mellas in Perugia, Italy.

Photo Credit: Simone Donati

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In his initial two statements several weeks apart, Rudy claimed he didn't recognize Meredith's killer; he also said he did not know who Amanda and Raffaele were. But five months later, Rudy suddenly told investigators it was Raffaele who murdered Meredith, and that he'd seen Amanda running from the house with her boyfriend.

Edda was on her way to Perugia to see Amanda when the news broke that her daughter had been arrested. "I was on a five-hour layover when the television news announced that my daughter had confessed to the murder," says Edda, her eyes bloodshot from sleeplessness. "I walked around that airport in a daze. My daughter murdered someone ... it wasn't possible. My husband was on the phone to the embassy in Rome. They gave him a list of some lawyers, and he started calling them." (Eventually the family reached out to their state representatives, who have been in contact with the State Department on their behalf.)

Says Amanda's 19-year-old sister, Deanna, "I stayed in bed for four days when we first heard. I had to drop out of college for a semester because I couldn't concentrate."

Since then, the police investigation has been chaotic and bumbling. Take the alleged murder weapon, a cooking knife that belonged to Raffaele. Amanda's DNA was found on the handle — not surprising, since she used it for cooking — and officials said Meredith's DNA had been found on the blade. But new DNA evidence released shows that after 183 attempts to match the material on the knife to Meredith's DNA, there is only a 1 percent chance that it is hers, making it unlikely that the knife is, in fact, the murder weapon.

There is also no indication that Meredith was subjected to sexual violence, "and no evidence at all on the young woman's body that would indicate there was a sex orgy," says Carlo Torre, a professor of legal medicine at the University of Turin and a leading forensic expert, who examined the autopsy reports and photographs of Meredith's body.

Meanwhile, Perugia's senior prosecutor on the case, Giuliano Mignini, 58, a round, balding man with unruly eyebrows, is himself under investigation for abuse of power, with a trial scheduled for November; he's been charged in a case involving wiretapping the phones of police and journalists, among other things. But in Italy, even if a prosecutor is under a cloud of suspicion, it is not mandatory to remove him from a case.

Equally bizarre, Amanda's defense lawyers — who no longer talk to the press — were denied the "evidence" against Amanda for months. Then, according to what they told Amanda's parents, the prosecution said they could have access to it for 50,000 euros (around $78,500). After vociferous protests from the lawyers, the prosecution relented.

Miraculously, Amanda did finally get a break when the Italian supreme court tossed out the results of her interrogation this past spring on the grounds that she had not been provided with a lawyer or interpreter. But legal experts in Italy say Amanda and Raffaele could very well be found guilty if indicted and tried, as saving face is a priority among Italian officials. "They've put so much into this case, they have to convict Amanda now or they look like fools," says Paul Ciolino. Amanda and Raffaele can always appeal to a higher court, but the Italian judicial system moves at such a glacial pace, the process could take several more years, during which time they could remain behind bars.

Amanda's stunned relatives, powerless to help her, are going bankrupt from the legal costs and trips to Italy. Her grandmother and biological father have taken out loans on their homes; Edda and her second husband expect they'll have to sell their three-bedroom house in Seattle.

In Perugia, Edda rents an apartment in a former farmhouse just outside of town. Alone here for a month or more at a time, she is as much a prisoner in Italy as her daughter. "I read, I e-mail, I sleep — except when I visit Amanda," she says. "How could I play tourist when my daughter is behind bars?"

These days, Amanda doesn't even have her journal to turn to for solace; it was confiscated by the authorities. In it, she describes Meredith as being studious and very smart. "To me, she was always a good friend," she wrote late last year. "She gave me advice and also protected me when she knew I was in an uncomfortable situation."

In the journal, Amanda repeatedly writes of her innocence: "Do you know what it feels like to see people looking at you like you are a monster? To have someone call you a liar, even when you are telling the truth? I can't stand being hated for something I didn't do," she says in an undated entry.

Amanda has lost nearly 20 pounds in prison. As an athlete used to running, hiking, and biking, she finds the physical inactivity a unique form of punishment. Her hair is thinning and she has become increasingly nearsighted, but prison authorities won't allow her family to supply her with vitamins.

"The only way I get up every morning and function is by believing my daughter will get out of there," says Edda; depending on what happens in the hearings, there's a very slim chance Amanda could go free this month. "I know innocent people are found guilty. We just pray that doesn't happen to Amanda."

In the meantime, Amanda, who once enjoyed camping by herself, is now terrified to be alone. Her thoughts often turn to the horror of Meredith's death. "Meredith was home alone and killed," she says in her journal, in another undated entry. "What if I were home that night? Could I have helped her, or would I be dead too?"

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