Amanda Knox and The White Devil

I haven’t really followed this case, the terrible murder of a British student, Meredith Kercher, in detail, but happened to read this piece in today’s Guardian about the appeal against the conviction of Amanda Knox.  I thought the arguments used by the lawyer defending another person involved in the case were quite extraordinary.

“Who is Amanda Knox?” Carlo Pacelli asked the judges and jury in a final address before the verdict, which is expected early next week. “Is she the mild, sweet young woman with no makeup you see before you today? Or is she, in fact, the one I have described and who emerges from the court papers on the basis of eyewitness portraits, given over to lust, narcotic substances and the consumption of alcohol?”

Based on that reasoning, I’m astonished I managed to make it through university without murdering anyone.

I was reminded of another case of an attractive young woman, on trial for murder in Italy, Vittoria Corombona, the (anti)heroine of Webster’s The White Devil. Uncertainty surrounds the question of Vittoria’s guilt or innocence – but she is most certainly treated unfairly by the court.  When asked sternly why she is not in mourning for her murdered husband she replies that she could not have ordered mourning clothes as she had no idea he was going to die. ‘Oh you are cunning’, replies the prosecutor.   She can’t win.

The phrase ‘white devil’ is usually taken as a description of Vittoria herself, beautiful but (perhaps) evil.  It’s disturbing to find such a close echo of Webster’s vision in a 21st century court:

The 24-year-old Knox, Pacelli said, was “the one and the other. In her, there is a double soul: the good, angelic, compassionate one … tender and ingenuous, and the Lucifer-like, demonic, satanic, diabolic one that at times wanted to live out borderline, extreme actions and dissolute behaviour.”

Those speaking in her defence are scarcely any better:

“She can be seen as a man-eater. But in fact she was a faithful woman in love,” Giulia Bongiorno, counsel for Sollecito, quoted the cartoon vamp [Jessica Rabbit]: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” And jabbing a finger at the prosecutors, she said: “They drew her that way.”

Whether she was faithful or in love are irrelevant.  It seems as though some still share the views of one of Webster’s characters, the Cardinal Monticelso:

You know what whore is.  Next the devil adultery,

Enters the devil murder.

It doesn’t seem at all appropriate to speculate about whether or not Amanda Knox is innocent.   But a good critique of the line of argument used in this case, the assumption that any kind of libertinism in women can be taken as evidence that they may also be murderers, is offered by Vittoria.

Sum up my faults, I pray, and you shall find,

That beauty and gay clothes, a merry heart,

And a good stomach to feast, are all,

All the poor crimes that you can charge me with.

In faith, my lord, you might go pistol flies,

The sport would be more noble.

Joan Smith has also written about the centuries old patterns of misogyny which this trial taps into.

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