THE LETTERS THAT APPEAR in Kris Johnson’s mailbox every month are as puzzling as anything else in this story full of puzzling things. The envelopes bear smiley faces inside of hearts and heart-shaped peace signs ringed with sunflower petals. The words aren’t so much written as drawn—the dots above the i ’s open circles instead of finite points—suggesting the author playfully danced the pen across the paper’s surface. Not exactly mail one expects from a prison inmate, especially one convicted of murder. Johnson keeps the letters, 11 so far, in a red folder on which she has written, in black marker, “Amanda Knox.”
The Seattle Preparatory School teacher had gone years without hearing that name until it was spoken during a faculty meeting in November 2007. And even then it took a moment for the name to register. The school president had been besieged by reporters, particularly the British press, in response to an event half a world away. And so a meeting was called: Teachers, if anyone inquires about Amanda Knox or asks about the murder, don’t say a word.
Johnson, a 30-year teaching veteran, doesn’t watch television. And in the midst of grading student essays she’d missed the newspaper coverage about the Seattle Prep high school alum and University of Washington student living in Italy during her junior year abroad. Amanda Knox? Murder? She called up the memory of the bright student in her AP English class. It didn’t make sense. “I went back and read some of what had been reported,” Johnson says. In articles with headlines like “Student Murdered After Refusing to Take Part in Sex” and “The Twisted World of Foxy Knoxy,” the teacher learned that her star pupil had been arrested for the homicide of her roommate in the medieval Italian village of Perugia. Investigators speculated that the victim perished during a Knox-led orgy or satanic ritual.
“Amanda was a person who went out of the way to be kind to other people,” Johnson thought. “How in the world could this be the same person?”
The question would puzzle others affiliated with Seattle Prep—faculty, Knox’s fellow students, and their parents. The answer most of them came to, and what they decided to do with that answer, would put the school in the crosshairs of local and international scrutiny. The school held fundraisers for Knox’s legal defense fund and wrote letters on her behalf to President Obama. A King County judge—a parent of one of Knox’s classmates—put his job on the line to defend her. And an Italian prosecutor, 6,000 miles away, scratched his head at Seattle Prep’s audacity.
Why was this high school, so seemingly incongruous with what the world knew about Amanda Knox, sticking its neck out for her? The answer is as complex as the murder mystery itself.
ALTHOUGH THE NARRATIVE WOULD SHIFT over time, early reports of the homicide investigation went like this: On the morning of November 2, 2007, two officers from the Perugia police department arrived at the house Knox shared with 21-year-old British exchange student Meredith Kercher and two Italian women. Kercher’s cellphones had turned up in some bushes about 200 yards away, and the police had simply come to reconnect her with the phone.
Instead, they found Knox in front of the house, allegedly with a mop and bucket. She was accompanied by her boyfriend of seven days, Raffaele Sollecito, the son of a wealthy Italian doctor. The couple told the police they suspected something amiss, directing them to a broken window and Kercher’s bedroom door, which was locked from the inside. The cops requested the bedroom door be opened—then beheld the horror on the other side: Kercher’s nearly naked body under a duvet, her throat slashed and the room splattered in blood.
As the investigation unfolded, the early stories went, Knox and her beau behaved suspiciously. While other friends cried or went pale at the sight of the gruesome scene, Amanda and Raffaele were caught on film kissing. Instead of attending a memorial for Kercher, the couple was rumored to have gone shopping for lingerie and joked about the amazing sex they were going to have. And prior to questioning, Knox was allegedly spotted doing cartwheels in the police reception room.
The couple maintained that they’d spent the night of the murder blocks away at Sollecito’s apartment, smoking pot, watching Amélie, and reading the German translation of Harry Potter. But a witness said he’d seen the couple near Knox’s house around the time of the slaying. Another reported that Knox showed up at his store the morning after and bought bleach—which police believed Knox used, along with the mop and bucket, to clean up the crime scene.
On November 5, police questioned Knox a third time, and by 5:45 the next morning, after five hours of interrogation, she signed a confession placing herself (and possibly Raffaele) at the house, and naming her boss, local bar owner Patrick Lumumba, as Kercher’s killer. The police detained Lumumba, Sollecito, and Knox and held a press conference at which they triumphantly proclaimed the murder solved.
Right away their theory proved anything but airtight. Lumumba presented a solid alibi; multiple witnesses confirmed that he’d spent the entire night at his bar. No DNA from Lumumba or Knox could be found at the crime scene; instead investigators discovered DNA from a fourth person, Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native who had fled to Germany shortly after the murder. They tracked down and arrested him, and released Lumumba.
By then Knox had changed her story, insisting that she’d signed her confession under pressure—and physical abuse—from her police interrogators. She maintained, once again, that she had spent the night at her boyfriend’s.
Still, allegations about the Seattleite flew in the Italian and British press. The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, posited that the killing resulted from both a satanic ritual and a sex orgy turned violent. He pegged the American woman as the instigator. A journal Knox kept while in jail soon ended up in the hands of reporters, who focused on an entry she’d written after prison staff told her—falsely—that she was HIV positive. Amanda had listed every sex partner she’d ever had, seven in all. But in the media, the list was misconstrued as conquests during her two months in the country. The Daily Mail in London reported: “Knox, who calls herself Foxy Knoxy, lists seven lovers she had in Italy.” Such stories cast Amanda as a craven sexual predator and bolstered Mignini’s orgy-gone-wrong theory.
No one at the small 700-student Jesuit school on Seattle’s Capitol Hill could believe their eyes.
NOT THAT KNOX WAS A NATURAL FIT at Prep. “Her first year was really tough,” her mother Edda Mellas says. The $13,850-a-year school educates the children of some of the most prominent families in Seattle. Former mayor Greg Nickels is a graduate. So is former Washington governor John Spellman. Amanda’s parents, divorced when she was just two, weren’t wealthy. Curt, her father, worked as a financial officer at Macy’s; Edda taught elementary school. And the West Seattle neighborhood where Amanda grew up was a far cry from the zip codes some of her classmates called home.
She wasn’t Catholic. And she didn’t dress like the other students, either. Whatever fashion prevailed for 14-year-old girls in 2001, when Amanda entered Prep, it’s doubtful it involved mismatched socks and jeans under skirts. “Amanda was not into wearing the right clothes and the right makeup,” Edda says. “She’s always been a free spirit. Very hippie. She was born in the wrong decade.”
And yet in other ways Amanda and Prep were a perfect match. The high school has a reputation for academic rigor, and Amanda, who’d read Beowulf by sixth grade, wanted a challenge. She applied and was not only accepted by Prep—which admits a limited number of non-Catholics—but won a scholarship to the school. The whole family rallied to make it work. Her grandmother, aunt, and stepfather took turns driving her to school. She often rode the Metro bus back to West Seattle at night.
Although she had few friends at Prep in the beginning, her mom says, Amanda eventually found a “loving and supportive group” among the theater kids. She played an orphan in Annie; her senior year she was nominated for a 5th Avenue High School Musical Theatre Award for her role as a British-accented goose in the “Ugly Duckling” send-up Honk!
She also made social inroads on the soccer team. “Other soccer parents would come up to me and say, ‘Wow, what a kid!’ ” Edda recalls. “She was very small compared to a lot of the other players, so she really had to fight for a spot on the team.” It was Amanda’s cunning moves on the field that earned her the nickname Foxy Knoxy—not, as the press would suggest years later, her sway over men.
By the time she graduated from Prep in 2005—with a 3.9 grade point average—Knox was also known campuswide for being particularly kind and warmhearted. One of her close friends in the drama department was openly gay. In solidarity, Amanda helped him organize Seattle Prep’s first gay-straight alliance. Years later, her penchant for kindness and justice would come back around.
AT A TINY TABLE IN THE 1ST FLOOR CAFE, a courthouse snack bar to which lawyers, paralegals, and stenographers flock between sessions for Cheetos and sodas, the Honorable Michael Heavey, four-term state representative and six-year senator for the great state of Washington and, for the past 10 years, King County Superior Court judge, brings the conversation to order.
In case there’s any doubt about where the judge stands in the case of Amanda Knox—a person he has never met—listen: “She. Is. One. Hundred. Percent. Innocent.” He says it again, this time, index finger for gavel, rapping the table with each word.
The judge shucks a Dove chocolate bar from its wrapper and explains how his faith in the woman imprisoned in Italy has impacted his professional life. When news broke of Knox’s arrest, Heavey asked his then 20-year-old daughter Shana what she thought of Amanda. The girls were in the same graduating class at Seattle Prep and, because they lived four blocks apart, often carpooled from West Seattle to school. “Amanda Knox is the most genuinely kind person I know,” Shana answered. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.”
No one else Heavey spoke with could connect the Amanda Knox they knew with the murderous harlot portrayed in the press. The judge had never met Edda Mellas but he spread the word in the Seattle Prep community that if Amanda’s mother needed him, he would help. She called. And, in the summer of 2008, the judge started writing letters.
The missives, printed on King County letterhead, were addressed to members of the Italian judiciary. In one, Heavey criticized prosecutor Mignini’s tactics—including leaks to the media that painted Knox as depraved—and asked that the trial be moved from Perugia to somewhere in Italy where potential jurors could be more objective. Another letter was addressed to Mignini himself, appealing to the prosecutor’s sense of justice. “I would respectfully suggest to you that there is a powerful force at work in the U.S., Italy, and around the world,” Heavey wrote. “This is the force of truth, not lies. This is the force of love and mercy, not hatred.” Heavey also revealed to Mignini his own Roman Catholic faith and his admiration for Seattle Prep, where he sent his two daughters.
The Italians interpreted the letters as American exceptionalism run amok. Much of the message was lost in translation, and it was perceived that Heavey was suggesting that the trial be moved out of Italy and to the United States.
The message also drew the ire of Washington State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, which slapped him with a misuse-of-office admonishment—a written warning that will follow Heavey throughout his career.
Heavey knew he was violating a code of conduct that bars judges from using their position to influence public matters—and it was Heavey himself who reported his actions to the commission. But as a private citizen—and a member of Prep’s tight-knit community—he felt he had no choice. (These days, when it comes to Knox, he always insists he’s speaking as a citizen.)
Next, along with another Prep parent, Tom Wright—an author and screenwriter—Heavey urged the high school to take a stand for one of its own.
SEATTLE PREP PRESIDENT KENT HICKEY DOESN’T KNOW Knox either. The 48-year-old took the reins of the Jesuit school in 2007, two years after she graduated. Before the murder in Perugia, Hickey’s only exposure to Amanda was on the soccer field. In her senior year, Knox and her Panthers laid waste—two goals to one—to the Braves of Bishop Blanchet High, where Hickey was both principal and soccer coach. Amanda’s old coach at Prep still razzes him for the loss. Knox was impressive, Hickey recalls, “athletic, fast, strong.”
The president won’t go on record as to whether he believes she’s innocent or guilty. It’s beside the point, he says. “Amanda is a young woman who sat at desks in our classrooms just a few years ago. She and her family are members of our community. Amanda, like all of our graduates, remains an important part of Prep. Our decision to support her flows directly from our commitment to cura personalis—‘care for the person.’ ”
Hickey, acting on advice from a group of faculty and parents, invited the Prep community to write notes to Amanda. The school also waged an advocacy campaign. Volunteers, Hickey says, wrote “to our senators, the State Department, and President Obama asking that our government ensure that Amanda receive full due process protections.”
But controversy erupted when Hickey made the decision to turn a January 4, 2010, basketball game into an Amanda Knox fundraiser. (By then Knox had been convicted of the murder; she’d begun serving a 26-year prison sentence and was awaiting her first round of appeals. Sollecito was sentenced to 25 years; Rudy Guede got a reduced sentence of 16 years on appeal.) Attendees could opt to donate their admission fees to Knox’s family, whose legal and travel expenses had nearly bankrupted them.
The first big salvo came in the form of a column by Nicole Brodeur in The Seattle Times titled, “Prep’s Misguided Lesson.” “I don’t think Hickey should speak for a school community that may not be united in its feelings about Knox,” Brodeur wrote. The president was skewered in the online comments. “As the mom of a former Prep student,” wrote one anonymous reader, “I am appalled at the school’s decision to host this fundraiser.” Other comments were less kind.
By game time, Prep had closed ranks. When KIRO Radio’s Jeff Pohjola showed up to report on the fundraiser, a Seattle Police officer, retained by the school for the event, escorted him off campus.
In defending Amanda, the school had joined powerful company, including U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Seattle-based New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan, a host of lawyer–cum–TV personalities, and Donald Trump, who called for an American boycott against Italy.
But in taking sides, Prep gained a long enemies list, many of them British, enraged that anyone would defend the woman convicted of Meredith Kercher’s murder. “I have received strange and even hateful emails…mostly from outside Washington State,” Hickey says. “There are probably a number of people who have both too much time on their hands and an unhealthy obsession with Amanda Knox.”
KRIS JOHNSON CAN STILL SEE HER, standing in her office doorway, face twisted in thought. Worried blue eyes. A head in the oven. Two babies. “I make everybody do a poetry project,” Johnson explains. Students choose a poet and analyze their work. Amanda was drawn to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, whose biography affected her greatly. “The suicide”—which Plath accomplished via carbon monoxide poisoning by sticking her head in a kitchen oven—“and the fact that she left behind two young kids really bothered Amanda. She came to my office to wade through these issues. Plath was a very real person to her and Amanda was longing to undo things that had been done.”
Amanda had always wanted to be a writer, and started keeping journals when she was 11 years old. “I have boxes and boxes of her journals,” her mother says. “The way she processes thoughts and feelings is by writing. She doesn’t like confrontation, so if she had a disagreement with somebody, she’d write us all a note.” Her journal writing may be another reason she eventually fit in so well at Prep. Her belief in self-examination and her habit of anatomizing her trains of thought synced with Jesuit philosophy. But the practice has contributed to her undoing, given how much her jailhouse diary has been used against her.
Today, Kris Johnson is her editor. “She sends me short stories from prison,” says Johnson, who describes herself as a tough critic. “I’ll send my feedback and Amanda will tell me, ‘Oh, I hoped you would do that. I counted on you to slash and mark.’ ”
The stories involve “people trying to understand each other, trying to communicate,” Johnson says. “I think she’s really interested in the boundaries between people and trying to transcend those boundaries.” She pauses. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you that. But I want to let you know anything that will convince you that she isn’t the person she’s been portrayed as.”
IF A PERSON’S GUILT OR INNOCENCE could be determined solely on what good people thought of them, Amanda Knox would have cartwheeled out of jail years ago. Many of the early claims made by the Italian police were ruled out or so unsubstantiated they never made it to trial, but there is some evidence against her. Investigators say, for instance, that her DNA was found on the handle of a knife and Kercher’s DNA on the knife blade, and that Sollecito’s DNA was found on Kercher’s bra clasp. Forensic experts in both the U.S. and Italy, however, doubt those claims, citing the possibility that the evidence was contaminated.
Amanda’s first round of appeals was scheduled to begin on November 24. And although there is new trouble for Knox and her parents—all three have been indicted for slander after publicly claiming that the police hit her upside the head during the interrogation in 2007—if the appeals process swings in their favor and it’s determined that the trial against her was “a railroad job from hell,” as a CBS 48 Hours segment described it, Amanda Knox could be back in Seattle by April 2011. If not, and if the second and final appeal upholds the original verdict, Knox won’t walk out of prison until at least 2035. She will be 48, the age her mother is today. (Prosecutor Mignini has appealed the original sentence, too, asking the court to condemn Knox and Raffaele Sollecito to life in prison.)
On November 5, 2010, three years to the day after her daughter was interrogated and taken into custody, Edda Mellas sat in the 29th-floor office of Gogerty Marriott, the PR firm that has managed the Knox message since the beginning. Out the window, a storm rippled the surface of the Sound; West Seattle was barely visible through the low-hanging clouds.
Just off work, and flying the colors of her employer, a blue Bow Lake Elementary sweatshirt—it was school-pride Friday, she explained, tugging at the sleeves—Edda spoke excitedly about her daughter’s time at Prep. “Watching her play that goose in Honk! Amazing.”
How is Amanda now? “She has her ups and downs. But anytime things get moving—even if it’s for the stupid slander trial—it’s easier for her. It’s the waiting around that’s hard. She’s in her cell 23 hours a day.”
Edda warded off tears until asked what Prep’s support has meant to her and her family. Everything. She reached for a Kleenex. No use. The rest of the conversation was waterworks.
Seattle Prep, an institution that has produced some of the region’s most powerful leaders, accepted her daughter, the non-Catholic, the outsider who came to them with mismatched socks and a pocketful of bus fare. The school accepted her and has never stopped.
Hours after the interview, Edda sent an email: “Amanda is not perfect, and I hope I did not come across as saying she is. She is innocent and really a lovely young woman.”
This story appeared in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Met magazine.