Finally free, Amanda Knox and Anna Vasquez lead fight against wrongful prosecutions

When they were young — Amanda Knox was 20 and Anna Vasquez was 19 — they were accused, tried and then wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes.

Knox and her boyfriend were convicted, acquitted, convicted again and finally exonerated by Italian courts of killing their roommate, a British student named Meredith Kercher.

Kercher, 21, was found dead Nov. 2, 2007, in the apartment that she shared with Knox and two other students. Her throat was slashed and she had been sexually assaulted.

Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were wrongfully convicted during two trials that accused the four of sexually assaulting, or “gang-raping,” Ramirez’s nieces, ages 7 and 9.

Knox and Vasquez’s are just two stories in an America that has recorded more than 2,500 exonerations since 1989 and about 22,000 lost years because of the mistakes made by law enforcement, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

The two women spoke to a group of Texas A&M law school students Tuesday to promote the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, a network of students and attorneys who evaluate cases and convictions and work to free those who have been wrongfully convicted.

In her essay, Knox contends that her humanity was hijacked by a voracious media machine that painted her as a monster and says that she is still in the process of reclaiming her identity.

Knox writes and now stars in a podcast called the Truth About True Crime. It is important that the wrongfully accused and convicted have their stories told, but those stories must be tempered with compassion and grounded in fact, Knox and Vasquez said.

Vasquez is director of education and outreach for the Innocence Project of Texas.

An innocent person walking into an interrogation room has no idea, Knox said.

“There was tons of misogyny,” Knox said of the story that was told about her prior to her trial. “I was depicted by my prosecutor as a drug-addled whore who engineered an orgy/rape and stabbed my roommate to death. It’s amazing that people believed that.“

Vasquez and Knox said they were naive going into the criminal justice system and cooperated with prosecutors and law enforcement without the benefit of counsel, secure in their certainty that justice would prevail. Eventually, justice would prevail, but only after each woman spent years at trial and years in prison.

“Before this happened to me, the criminal justice system was the farthest thing from my mind,” Knox said. “I grew up with a lot of privilege. I had never had any encounters with law enforcement before.”

Knox told the students that they would never be as naive as she was because they know the law. Vasquez said that when she saw someone go to prison, she believed they were going because they had done something wrong.

“I did not know my rights,” Knox said. “The only thing on my mind was helping the police find out what had happened to my friend. Even when they were being really aggressive with me, I thought that it was because of all the pressure that people were under.”

Mike Ware, Innocence Project of Texas executive director, said there are two types of people in the world. There are those people who listen and say that this story is so ridiculous and absurd that it can’t be true and those who say that this story is so ridiculous and absurd that it must be true, Ware told the crowd.

“I did not know how to interpret how they were treating me,” Knox said. “I didn’t know they had tapped my phones. I didn’t know they suspected me. It never crossed my mind. Even when they were putting handcuffs on me, they told me I was just a witness.”

Vasquez said her mother wanted to talk with the other parties named in the case so they could work things out, but she stopped her.

“I got this,” Vasquez said she told her mother. “I thought I could handle it. It was a mistake.”

Now, Vasquez said, she passes on this advice: “Never admit, never consent and lawyer up.”

Anna Vasquez and Amanda Knox 1
Amanda Knox and Anna Vasquez talk about their wrongful convictions. Amanda Knox was convicted of murder, and Anna Vasquez was convicted of sexual assault. Both convictions were overturned. Candice Bolden

The best story wins

In 2015, Italy’s highest court overturned the murder conviction against Knox and her ex-boyfriend in the 2007 slaying of Knox’s roommate.

“The courtroom is a battleground of storytelling,” Knox said. “I know it’s not always the most truthful story that wins.”

According to Knox, the first story the public heard about her was of about how her ravenous sexual appetite led to depravity and her roommate’s death. The story, even though false, gained traction because all the prejudices that people hold in silence blossom into being once you are accused, according to Knox.

“With women they attack our sexuality and devalue you,” Knox said. “It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true. I could have been a dominatrix and it should never have mattered. But people assume that because you are in the tabloids, you must be a [expletive] train wreck. Women are still being discredited depending on what they look like or where they come from.”

Knox acknowledged that the truth did eventually win out.

“Wrongful convictions are how you understand the prejudices in our culture,” Knox said. “As soon as someone is accused, you are allowed to hate them in public for all the reasons you hated them in private before they were accused. If you want a sense of how our society needs to grow, take a look at wrongful convictions.”

Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were arrested a few days after Kercher’s death. Eventually another man, Rudy Guede from Ivory Coast, was arrested, tried and convicted of the murder in a separate trial.

The couple maintained their innocence, insisting that they had spent the evening together at Sollecito’s place watching a movie, smoking marijuana and making love.

Knox and Sollecito were initially convicted by a court in Perugia, Italy, in 2009, then acquitted and freed in 2011, and then convicted again in 2014 in Florence after the Cassation court overturned the acquittals and ordered a new appeals trial.

Knox had been convicted of slander for having falsely accused a Congolese man of the murder. That conviction was upheld by the high court, but Knox had already served the three-year sentence in prison.

The supreme Court of Cassation overturned the 2014 murder convictions by a Florence appeals court and declined to order another trial. The judges declared that Knox and Sollecito did not commit the crime, a stronger exoneration than merely finding that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.

Experts at the time said such a complete exoneration was unusual for the high court, which could have upheld the conviction or ordered a new trial as it did in 2011 when the case first came up for review on appeal.

No crime ever committed

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November 2016 that the women known as the “San Antonio 4” were innocent and they were exonerated for a crime that never happened.

Ware said the charges were preposterous and would never have gone forward if the four women had not declared themselves to be lesbians.

“In our case we were these satanic worshipers just flying around at night,” Vasquez said. “Back then, you had to hide being a lesbian.”

All four women found themselves in prison after a second trial in 1998. The trials turned on the false testimony from the alleged victims in the case, who had apparently been coached by adults, and the testimony of a physician who admitted that she misrepresented the facts, Ware said.

“That’s the testimony we were able to debunk,” Ware said. “She testified that there was scientific evidence that there was a sexual assault. Even the doctor herself admitted that she misinterpreted the evidence.”

Vasquez was paroled in 2012 when the Innocence Project took up their case and all four clearly passed polygraph tests asserting their innocence, according to Ware. The other three women were released on bail in 2013 after lawyers working for the Innocence Project uncovered additional evidence that was never presented at trial, Ware said.

“One of the accusers contacted me and recanted,” Ware said.

Ware said he got involved in the case in 2006 after being contacted by a University of Michigan law school professor. At the time, Ware said, he had just resigned his position heading the Conviction Integrity Unit with the Dallas County district attorney’s office. After Ware reviewed the case files, he had each woman take two polygraph examinations, which they passed, Ware said.

“At the root of every wrongful conviction there is an investigator and a prosecutor who took the case through the system,” Ware said. “This case underscores the tremendous power that prosecutors have. Just because a police department brings them a case, they do not have to take the case or take the case to trial. They have a tremendous responsibility, but they also have almost zero accountability.”

This story includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.