Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that my slander conviction was unjust. I am grateful for their wisdom in acknowledging the reality of false confessions, and the need to reform police interrogation methods.
I remain forever grateful to everyone around the world who has believed in me, defended me, and spoken out on my behalf throughout the years. I couldn’t have survived this without your support.
In early November 2007, I was studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, when a local burglar named Rudy Guede broke into my home and raped and killed my friend and roommate, Meredith Kercher. I was in shock, and I volunteered to help the Perugian police in any way I could. But they weren’t interested in my help. They were determined to break me.
I was interrogated for 53 hours over five days, without a lawyer, in a language I understood maybe as well as a ten-year-old. When I told the police I had no idea who had killed Meredith, I was slapped in the back of the head and told to “Remember!”
The police found my text messages to my boss, Patrick Lumumba. He had given me the night off, and I’d written back, “Ci vediamo più tardi,” a literal translation of the English idiom “see you later.” It isn’t an idiom in Italian. The police read that sentence as a literal plan: “We will see each other later.” This small linguistic misunderstanding could have been just that. But the Perugian investigators refused to believe me when I told them I had not met Patrick that night. They painted a story for me, about how I had witnessed Patrick killing Meredith. They told me I was traumatized by the incident and had amnesia. When I told them that wasn’t true, they said I was lying, or confused. They bombarded me with questions and scenarios, over and over again, into the morning.
I trusted these people. They were adults. They were authorities. And they lied to me. They lied to me that there was physical evidence of my presence at the crime scene. They lied to me that Raffaele said I went out that night. They threatened me with thirty years in prison if I didn’t remember what they wanted me to remember. Finally, in the delirium they put me through, I didn’t know what to believe. I thought, for a brief moment, maybe they were right. Maybe I did have amnesia. I told them I could see blurred flashes of Patrick, like they said. I told them I could imagine hearing Meredith screaming, like they said. They wrote the statements; I signed them. Then they rushed out to arrest Patrick Lumumba.
Within hours, I retracted those statements. I told them I had not met Patrick that night. They didn’t care. Patrick had a rock-solid alibi. They didn’t care. They locked him up, upending his life. And they didn’t release him until two weeks later, when DNA from the crime scene came back and identified the actual killer: Rudy Guede.
The authorities went on to charge and convict Raffaele and me for Guede’s crime, and further convicted me of slandering Patrick Lumumba. It took eight years, but we were definitively acquitted of Meredith’s murder in 2015. This final verdict, however, upheld my slander conviction, even though my statements were deemed inadmissible in court because they were produced during an illegal and unrecorded interrogation. I was sentenced to three years, time served.
I know the absolute horror of sitting in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, and I spent years wracked with guilt over those statements I signed in the interrogation room. Back then, I had never heard of a “false confession.” I had no idea that one in four people exonerated on DNA evidence in the U.S. falsely confessed. Later, I learned that the coercive methods I experienced―isolation, exhaustion, deception, verbal and physical abuse―are designed to get suspects to say whatever the police want. To judge me as the author of those false statements tacitly absolves the police for their cruel and abusive behavior that produced them, ruining lives and making a mockery of justice.
The Italian Court of Cassation has already acknowledged that the Perugian investigators and prosecutors contaminated, tampered with, and destroyed material evidence. What went unacknowledged was the fact that these same investigators and prosecutors also subjected innocent people, Raffaele and myself, to psychological torture and physical abuse while under interrogation. They contaminated their own investigation by producing false statements behind closed doors. And then they blamed us.
I never should have been charged, much less convicted, of slander. And Raffaele should never have been refused his due compensation for wrongful imprisonment because he “gave contradictory statements” while under duress. Scapegoating the wrongfully convicted for the mistakes and misconduct of the police prevents us from reforming the system, leading to further miscarriages of justice.