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All the Pretty Witches

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In the vortex that swirls from today's media and legal climate, motivated authorities may not have enough to send you to jail, but they certainly have enough to ruin your life.

And they don't need much.

This week, the retrial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito begins in Florence for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. Knox and Sollecito were once convicted and then, in 2011, found innocent on appeal. Their acquittal was accompanied by a scathing assessment of the methods of the prosecution.

But now it all begins again, and if the two are convicted, they can be sentenced to long prison terms even though neither of them are currently in Italy for the trial, and extradition laws make Knox's incarceration unlikely.

Never mind that Kercher's killer, Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native who had a long history of trouble with the law, has been convicted of the crime and is in an Italian prison. Never mind that Guede's DNA was found in Kercher's room and inside her body, and that his bloody fingerprints and shoeprints were also found at the crime scene. Never mind that there is no physical or behavioral evidence against Knox and Sollecito.

The case proceeds because of the persuasive power of conspiratorial narrative, not evidence. As filmmaker Errol Morris wrote: "You can escape from prison, but how do you escape from a convincing story?"

The only thing that the authorities appeared to have on Knox was an alleged "confession" where, after many hours of interrogation and sleep deprivation, she was asked to "imagine" what may have happened to Kercher.

This sounds remarkably like the "spectral evidence" that became notorious after the Salem witch trials. Spectral evidence was testimony where the witness claimed that the accused witch confessed to her crimes in the form of a spirit, maybe a goblin, a barnyard goat, or, perhaps in contemporary imagery, a visit from Elvis at your local Chipotle.

As famed FBI profiler and author John Douglas has said, "Obtaining a false confession is easy. Obtaining a true confession is difficult." Douglas and his co-author Mark Olshaker have become advocates for Knox and Sollecito.

There is a hazard in speculating too much about what could be motivating the Italian judges, but there are elements of this case that are disturbingly familiar to me having worked in a crisis management capacity for high-profile defendants during the past three decades.

In marquee cases, the archetypal players and allegations are much more cognitively pleasing than what the facts tell us. In the anthropology of controversy, these phenomena are known as "availability cascades" -- mentally convenient cast characters and story lines that become self-reinforcing and bypass rational analysis.

This conforms to a construct I have framed in books where the public understands controversies best when they have a clear trinity of players: victims, villains and vindicators. In this scenario, Meredith Kercher is the victim (which, of course, she should be), Knox and Sollecito are the villains, and the Italian prosecutors and judges are the vindicators who, in theory, care only about bringing injustice to light.

In reality, becoming a famed vindicator can yield big dividends in the form of celebrity, career advancement and other goodies. Becoming a renowned vindicator demands that the villains be cinematic. No Manson, no advancement.

The evidence against Rudy Guede is damning, but not sexy. Knox, Sollecito and the whiff of Satanic orgy murders are sexy. Only a Mossad connection would have made it better, and if the Italians keep holding trial sequels, it's only a matter of time before we get one.

As Olshaker and Douglas discuss in their book Law & Disorder, it is much easier to believe that the beautiful Knox "was guilty of brutally murdering her roommate [Meredith Kercher] in a frenzy of satanic lust" than it is to believe the less exciting alternative.

"Foxy Knoxy" and Sollecito were, quite literally, the most attractive suspects that were available to both the authorities and the media. Write Olshaker and Douglas:

"The beautiful, mercurial Amanda was a defendant almost too good to be true. This was a classic archetypal morality play: Virtue against evil; the good girl against the bad girl. What could have possessed this sultry temptress to kill her equally lovely friend, enlisting the help of her sexy Italian boyfriend and black African boss. ... Oh, the powers of seduction this American must have!"

Even vindication can have a counterintuitive effect -- it deepens the fixation that the accused was sufficiently diabolical as to have conjured a way to get away with something monstrous.

With our smartphones, endless sources of information and forensic gifts, we modernists rest easy in notions of our own enlightenment. The reality is that technology and other forces have simply shifted us from a plane where we savage the unloved with bloody ball spikes to savaging them with the click of a mouse and rap of a gavel. In colonial Salem, it was execution by storytelling. In Digital Age Italy, it's, well... the same.

In the meantime, Amanda Knox is completing her degree at the University of Washington. Raffaele Sollecito remains stateless and risks being imprisoned if he sets foot on Italian soil despite having already been declared innocent. His young life is an extended stay in purgatory.

Perhaps the fiasco in Florence will have the inadvertent effect of shining a spotlight on what could possibly be motivating the Italian judges to pursue this case -- beyond the primal cascades discussed here. In colonial Massachusetts, the colony's elders revisited the Salem convictions and executions, but for now the Italian authorities are showing no signs of reflection. Nevertheless, they still have the chance to become true vindicators and expand the mantle of victimhood to include Knox and Sollecito so they can finally escape from a prison built of narrative.

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