“Either I am a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.” These are the words of Amanda Knox, the young woman who was twice convicted and twice acquitted for the murder of her roommate while studying abroad in Italy in 2007. Through the investigations, trials, and acquittals, Knox remained the subject of international and national news. Some proclaimed her innocence, others condemned her.
On September 30, Netflix released a documentary titled Amanda Knox, which provides an in-depth exploration into all aspects of the case. Knox’s quote above composes part of her personal introduction in the film. The documentary begins with Knox’s decision to study abroad in Italy, covers her budding relationship with Raffaele Sollecito, and then examines the murder and its aftermath through the eyes of Knox, Sollecito, the Italian legal system, and the ever-present press. The documentary compounds footage from the crime scene, the courts, and monologues from those involved. These people include Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, Giuliano Mignini, the Italian prosecutor, Nick Pisa, a British journalist who helped cover the story, and independent forensic experts. The documentary does not seek to convince the audience of Amanda Knox’s innocence or guilt. It simply offers all of the available facts and perspectives and leaves discernment of the proper verdict to the audience. Amanda Knox is part of a growing trend of using media outlets as a medium for exploring all sides of a complicated crime story.
This trend arguably began in 2012 with the The Central Park Five documentary film. This film covered the arrest and wrongful conviction of five juveniles in the violent assault and rape of a young woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. The Central Park Five explored the roles of the police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and the media’s coverage of the crime. While The Central Park Five suggested the irrefutable innocence of the five young men, it more importantly explored and questioned the accepted truths of a sensational and widely publicized crime.
Other outlets soon followed suit. In 2014, an American journalist named Sarah Koenig created Serial, a podcast series that explores a crime over multiple episodes. The first season comprised Koenig’s thorough investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the ensuing conviction of Adnan Syed. Koenig strove to focus solely on the facts, and ends the first season with the conclusion that although she would have acquitted Adnan Syed from a legal perspective she remains doubtful of his complete innocence. In the second season, Koenig investigated the controversial disappearance and desertion of Bowe Bergdahl.
In December of 2015, Netflix premiered Making a Murderer, a documentary television series which explored the story of Steven Avery. After spending 18 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of sexual assault and attempted murder, Avery enjoyed two years of freedom before being arrested and convicted for murder. Making a Murderer also addressed the arrest and conviction of Avery’s nephew who was charged in connection to the murder.
These ‘true crime’ stories have been exceptionally well received as a collective.The first season of Serial received a Peabody Award. Rotten Tomatoes awarded The Central Park Five a score of 93%, Making A Murderer a 97%, and Amanda Knox an 89%. Amanda Knox may explore a new crime, but this exploration is part of something much bigger than Knox herself.
With decades of mandatory sentencing and championed wars on crime, more Americans currently spend their lives behind bars in the alleged “Land of the Free” than ever before. The current proliferation of ‘true crime’ stories attempts to discern and illuminate the destructive binary that places people behind bars: truth or lie, innocent or guilty. The law’s demarcation of innocence between black and white is inapplicable. People live out these stories, and nothing human is ever purely black or white. We live in a grey area that the criminal system struggles to acknowledge, but too often we offer our own uninformed verdict.
The ‘true crime’ stories trend forces the recognition of our uninformed judgements. These stories comprise hours of information and years of research, but find themselves unable to judge innocence or guilt. How then, can we make a confident judgement from a five minute news story? How can we mandate that our justice system determine innocence or guilt in a few short weeks? This mandate plays a major role in the current levels of incarceration and the high wrongful conviction rate.
The Central Park Five, Serial, Making a Murderer, and Amanda Knox have become society’s first powerful step towards approaching a seemingly unapproachable criminal justice system by championing a change in the way we perceive alleged criminals. Amanda Knox is either ‘a psychopath in sheep’s clothing’ or she is ‘you’, but the real subject is not Knox’s guilt or innocence, the real subject is you.