Unfueling the Fire: Amanda Knox, Steven Avery and My Foray into the Court of Social Media

Netflix released two documentaries in the past year, Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox. Both films covered the murder trials and wrongful convictions of two individuals respectively – Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey for the killing of 25 year old Theresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito – for the 2007 slaying of 21 year old Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. Like many others, I was intrigued by both of these cases that captured the world’s attention and inspired contentious debate.

The case of Theresa Halbach became widely known after the December 2015 release of Making a Murderer. MaM is the strange and twisted story that focuses mainly on Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of rape and imprisoned for 18 years, exonerated of the crime by DNA and released, only to then be convicted and imprisoned again for Halbach’s murder only 2 short years later.

The Meredith Kercher case became international news due to the brutal nature of the crime and the stunningly unusual suspects  – Meredith’s roommate, a pretty, 20 year old college student from Seattle named Amanda Knox and her new Italian boyfriend, Sollecito.

So what, you may ask, besides the victims both being young women, does a murder in Wisconsin have to do with another that occurred two years later and half a world away?

If you look beyond the obvious differences between the two cases, you can see some startling parallels:

  1. A beautiful young woman is murdered and the case garners international attention, with the public demanding justice.
  1. A morally ambiguous prosecutor with a seemingly personal agenda manufactures and releases information with the direct intent to vilify the accused with conjecture, half truths and downright lies unsupported by any concrete evidence.
  1. The collection and processing of the forensic evidence is tainted and compromised by the crime scene techs, investigators and the lab.
  1. Zero credible DNA evidence is found to link the accused to the crime.
  1. There are strong supportive arguments that evidence was planted.

In the Halbach case, it is theorized and may be proven in the near future by Avery’s attorney Kathleen Zellner that Manitowoc County law enforcement, motivated by a wish to escape a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the county for Avery’s first conviction, did in fact plant physical evidence to incriminate Steven Avery. The magically appearing RAV key, Avery’s “sweat” DNA on the hood latch of Theresa’s car, his blood near the steering wheel that suspiciously bore the outline of a Q-tip, and more.

But what physical evidence was planted by law enforcement  in the Kercher case? None. In this case, the planting was done through a subtler route, and one not likely to win an overturned conviction in a court of law – yet it was just as damaging. What evidence is this? The frenzied, all-out character assassination of Amanda Knox by the press, that like a monster gobbled up her suit of protective armor that we call “innocent until proven guilty.”

I sat down this past Friday night to watch the documentary, Amanda Knox and wasn’t disappointed. It isn’t a standard A-Z rehashing of the case, but rather a study on how the press coverage of the trial played a major part in her conviction. From day one, the headlines screamed in large font about “Foxy Knoxy” – calling her a she-devil, a villainous leader of a satanic sex cult who killed Meredith to satisfy her own lust-driven thirst for blood. Like a modern-day Iago, the press planted evidence of her guilt in the minds and hearts of a public desperate for justice, while appealing to the darker side of humanity hungry for salacious details of a sex-crazed, murderous sociopath.

On Saturday morning I logged on to Facebook and checked in with the Steven Avery & Brendan Dassey Project – a group I’ve belonged to for a better part of the year where people from across the world have joined to discuss the case, analyze the evidence, or simply show support for the two men they believe (rightfully so) to be wrongfully imprisoned for Theresa Halbach’s murder.

At the top of the newsfeed, I saw someone had posted that the Amanda Knox documentary was now available. Since I had just watched it, this piqued my interest and I clicked through to read the comments on what others thought of it. This is what I saw:

“She’s guilty”

“I watched it last night, I thought she was guilty as hell”

Others were more circumspect, not saying she was guilty outright, but leaning toward that conclusion based on Amanda’s seemingly odd behavior the day of the murder.

“Either Amanda Knox is the least observant and most aloof person in history or she played a role in Meredith Kercher’s death. I really can’t see any other logical alternative.”

These statements stunned me coming from members of this group in particular. This is not because I think we should all blindly believe that every person convicted of murder is innocent. It is because the second Amanda Knox was acquitted by the Italian Supreme Court, her presumption of innocence was restored. To declare her guilty in a public forum without offering any new or credible evidence to back up your claims is taking it upon yourself to chip away at that presumption of innocence – in a group, no less, whose sole mission is to help release two other wrongfully convicted individuals.

I journeyed a bit farther into Facebook as it informed me that the term “Amanda Knox” was trending. I read comments made on posts about the documentary shared by Time Magazine, Netflix, New York Magazine and many others.

A disturbing pattern began to emerge. While a fair amount of commenters agreed with the Italian Supreme Court’s ruling, more often than not I read comments like these:

“Guilty.”

“She’s guilty.”

“That cunt is guilty”

“You know that lying whore did it”

“I hope that bitch rots in hell for what she did to Meredith”

“All this did was show me that she got away with murder. I don’t care there was no DNA everything points to her and it’s so obvious. She does lie well though it seems.”

“Her face gives me the creeps…textbook sociopath”

Again, we see no evidence is offered to corroborate these statements of guilt. I am not in the business of censoring people, everyone has a right to express their opinions. But just because it’s your right, does that make it right?

In this day and age we have access to all kinds of social media platforms where with just a few clicks and taps, our opinions and judgments have the potential to be seen by thousands or even millions of people.

The death knell rings on the era of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward & Bernstein, as more and more of us look to social media as our sole source of news and social commentary. It also places the responsibility that comes with reporting the news more heavily on our own shoulders.

And with this responsibility comes a choice – to use the vehicle of social media for good or evil. When we declare a verdict of guilt on a living, breathing human being are we using critical thinking based on concrete fact? Or do we condemn a person for the most heinous crime on Earth as casually as we would vote someone off Dancing with the Stars?

In truth, this essay was not written to determine the guilt or innocence of Amanda Knox or Steven Avery. Amanda Knox has already been found innocent by a court of law, and Steven is well on his way to hopefully be found the same. It was written to point out that for each of us – what we Post, what we Tweet, what we Share in these situations – it matters.

So when the next big case comes along, and the person or persons involved are facing life and death consequences, I urge you to ask yourself, “What part will I play in the next trial by social media? Will I unfuel the fire, or add my stick and watch it burn? Because until we start asking ourselves that, we become part of the problem – and WE make the murderers.

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