Bestselling True Crime writer and South African photojournalist Nick van der Leek writes about the many flashbulb moments experienced writing about the Meredith Kercher Murder Mystery.
Albert Einstein once said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." One of the tremendously rewarding experiences we [my co-author Lisa Wilson and I] have as authors is our research forces us to set up camp around questions. We spend time: mornings, afternoons, days, weeks, even months asking questions and pursuing answers. The amazing thing when it comes to True Crime, especially popular crime, is those answers are out there. One merely needs to go out and make the effort to look for them. And keep looking. Seek and we do find!
What makes our narratives distinctive, I think, is that Lisa Wilson and I more often than not work as a team. How many other narratives have two authors, working from opposite sides of the Atlantic? While Lisa provides a US perspective as a juror and a True Crime buff, I am more interested in the intuitive subtleties that underlie these cases. The psychology, the economics, the motives. Human behaviour is fascinating, especially when it drives people to the extreme. I’m also intrigued by what these intuitions reveals about us, and society.
I wasn’t always into True Crime, in fact like Ann Rule I sort of fell into it by accident. While Rule worked with Ted Bundy, I was facebook friends with the model Oscar Pistorius shot dead in his bathroom. I didn’t intend to write a novel, I simply started asking questions, and then penned a 12 000 word magazine article [intended as a 4 part series]. That narrative eventually became my first bestseller.
Although I studied law and economics, I left the corporate environment to freelance fulltime as a photographer and writer. My great grandfather was a famous South African artist, and my brother and aunt are also both well regarded artists [and yes, freelancers] in their own rights too. I guess there is something restless in my blood that makes we want to dig beneath the surface, to see expanded perspectives than what the media serves us. I need to not only explore the world beyond my door, but represent it to myself and others in a constructive and meaningful way. I feel passionate about meaning above all, and it’s gratifying to find so much in so grim a setting where someone has lost their life. When we honour them, when we remember them honestly, something unexpected happens: we also set ourselves straight, we also get ourselves [and society to some extent] back on track.
In terms of the Amanda Knox case, I stepped into the bullring for the first time in April this year. I knew virtually nothing about the case other than it had been newsworthy around the world. I knew ‘something’ had happened in Italy, and that Amanda Knox was somehow involved [or not] because she was a housemate of a murdered British girl [also a student]. Before I started studying the case I had no bias either way – I didn’t know whether she was guilty or not. Based on the little media that came my way, there seemed to me to be equal parts bias that she was innocent and…suspicion.
As soon as I started examining the case, literally within a few minutes, my interest was aroused. It was along the lines of: she’s hiding something. It was also along the lines that I thought Amanda might be involved in some way, complicit in some way, but probably not involved in the actual murder. How could she? Why would she?
Again, it is easy to ask these questions and then walk away from them without investing time in their answers. And when they do come they’re…well…stupefying.
While Lisa traveled to Italy to investigate this case first-hand, I started working behind-the-scenes on a narrative Lisa and I designed a framework for called DOUBT. The plan was that Lisa would return and then we would work on the narrative together. I got so caught up in my own research I started on the narrative and by the time Lisa returned from Italy DOUBT was done. Interestingly, Lisa still wasn’t convinced of Amanda’s guilt when she got back, and we had one or two heated Skype calls while Lisa was still in Italy, where Lisa’s position was set to the default setting of most outsiders to the Amanda Knox case: “but there was no DNA.”
A lie repeated often enough eventually becomes if not the truth, then a kind of truism, doesn’t it? A truism isn’t the truth, it’s a platitude. It’s something you say to get rid of inquiring minds.
No DNA? Well, of course there is – at least five instances of it, mixed with Meredith’s blood. What’s perhaps more bizarre, for example, is the lack of Amanda’s fingerprints in her own home. A single print? How many of us could say the same about fingerprints in our own homes? Our computers, door handles, kitchen areas ought to be splattered with prints. Coming back to DNA, not only is Amanda’s DNA present, but so is Raffaele’s in Meredith’s bloody bedroom. What is the chance that Raffaele was at the villa, in Meredith’s room, but not Amanda? What was he doing there if Amanda wasn’t with him? And is it any surprise that Meredith’s bra, cut with a knife after the murder also had Raffaele’s DNA on the bra clasp? This is a guy who had a knife fetish, and who was carrying a knife at the time of his arrest?
In DOUBT [which was banned at first by strident Pro Knoxers and then resurrected as DECEIT] I identified 28 Red Flags. These were singular signals that seem to show patterns of inconsistency. Things just didn’t add up. Indeed Amanda did seem to be [and still is?] hiding something. In DARK MATTER Lisa and I joined forces. We brought a binocular lazer-like narrative focus to the four days of intense police investigation following the discovery of Kercher’s body at midday November 2nd, 2007. In DARK MATTER we identified an additional 100 plus Red Flags [we distinguished these from the first 28 by calling them ‘Black Asterisks’]. In addition to these we listed several other Highly Suspicious Events amongst other increasingly odd behaviors – not only from Amanda, but Raffaele as well. It is when we pool all of these clues together that a picture begins to emerge. Patterns emerge. And suddenly the mystery becomes…less mysterious.
If my initial ‘gut feel’ was that Amanda was simply ‘hiding something’, by the end of DECEIT there was little doubt that there was a lot more going on than that. In fact, I’ve suggested to Lisa that based on forensic evidence alone [if one threw away all the circumstantial evidence], Amanda would still a have a major case to answer to. Conversely, if one took the entirety of circumstantial evidence, including the on-again-off-again alibi, and simultaneously threw out [ie ignored] the totality of forensic evidence, Amanda would still have a major case to answer to. That’s my opinion. Lisa’s too, now that she’s gone beneath the surface of this case herself. The irony is this case is so large, so convoluted, so filled with spin and counterspin, that it is easy to get lost in the details. As we see so often in court cases, it is not a lack of evidence that is a problem, it is the volume of it that gets disconcerting, and frequently confusing. Confusion and doubt [and ‘reasonable doubt’] go hand in hand. Of course being confused by a lot of information is not the same as uncertainty based on a lack of evidence, or based on ambiguous evidence. The evidence isn’t ambiguous.
As such it is Lisa’s and my mission to demystify the eight years culminating in Amanda’s and Raffaele’s ultimate acquittal. Our narratives, especially the first two or three in the series are probably better suited to newbies [people like us]. In THE IVORIAN, and the many narratives to come after that, Lisa and I expect to be as well versed as some folks on forums and resources like the incredibly valuable True Justice.org.
Before wrapping up, I’d like to share a final insight based on our experience writing another true crime series. It may seem like Amanda Knox, Jodi Arias and Oscar Pistorius are three distinct individuals, with nothing in common. But when we look closer we don’t simply see matches in certain defense schemes, we see entire patterns of conduct [including motive] overlapping, and doing so perfectly.
In South Africa we have a similar situation where the media profit out of stories on Oscar Pistorius. They are reluctant to declare him guilty as that would be slaying a potential ‘cash cow’, and with book deals hanging in the balance [an acquittal is literally worth millions], the media are hedging their bets. As a person involved in the media I am appalled at this, hence our eight narratives on Oscar, two detailing his motive and the method of what we speculate was premeditated murder. In terms of Amanda Knox, we suspect a similar game play between the media and Knox. Both seem to be involved in a kind of PR waltz which both stand to benefit from, if they can dance consistently to their own music.
It was once said of Lance Armstrong that one shouldn’t make Lance Armstrong angry. Anger is what motivates Lance to win. And then the punch line: ‘Beating Lance makes him angry.’ Lisa and I have been astonished at the level of organization and aggressive militancy [and dirty tricks] employed by Amanda’s supporters. If this was intended to dissuade us from writing, these folks couldn’t be more wrong. We are not out to make money, Lisa and I, although we care that our narratives resonate and are successful. What we really care about is justice. The bottom line, whether one is a criminal, or the supporter of a criminal is you never look good trying to make someone else look bad. The venom and personal insults Lisa and I have endured in our reviews is impressive. The strategy is clear – attack the credibility of the messenger [since the message itself is problematic].
Our credibility is simple to establish. For my part, I am a professional writer. I did not gain a twitter following of almost 14 000 based on bad writing. I write in partnership with Lisa because her research is often deeper and even more thorough than mine. For me our credibility is based on just two tests: our personal standards and our level of honesty towards ourselves and others. What distinguishes our narratives from all the others out there is the level of honesty – including self disclosure – both of us bring to our work. This is because we care about something beyond justice. Besides wanting our readers to have a meaningful and genuine experience reading about these tragic crimes, we – as authors – also want to be enriched. When we make it a personal journey, the insights and intuitions are truly rewarding. We find how these folks – not only the victim but also the perpetrators – are not so very different from us. In this sense, if when we genuinely learn something from these true stories, Meredith Kercher’s death need not be in vain.
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