Perugia: Journalists Take Their Place in Court – the Cage

By ANN WISE, Producer, ABC News Rome

The  president of the Court of Perugia, Italy, expected a courtroom packed with jostling journalists on the opening day of Amanda Knox's murder trial, but did he expect to find them in cages?

Covering news events in Italy is almost always chaotic, but strangely (to an Anglo-Saxon at least), both the journalists and their subjects  actually seem to prefer it that way. A crazy pack of people pushing cameras and microphones in their faces makes them feel more important, I have been told. And perhaps the lack of rigid organization leaves those gaps that clever Italians love to slip through. Knox's trial in Perugia is a case in point.

The disturbing and puzzling murder of Meredith Kercher, found stabbed in the apartment she shared with Knox and two other women, on Nov. 2, 2007, has all the elements of an intriguing international story. A young beautiful British victim, and very unlikely suspects: Knox, a 21-year-old American student from Seattle, her proper Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and a Perugia-raised vagabond from the Ivory Coast. All  are accused of joining forces to kill Kercher in a sort of sex frenzy. 

The story has captivated media attention around the world from the first day -- the British tabloids, U.S.  television stations, as well as the Italian, German and Swiss press -- and Knox has become the star. The beautiful American coed who target='external'continues to profess her innocence has filled newspapers and TV screens since her arrest, alternately depicted as an angel and a fiend. One hundred forty journalists representing 80 media organizations were accredited for the first day of the trial on Jan. 16.

The Perugia court did its best to prepare for the onslaught.

By 7:30 a.m., alongside the dozen satellite trucks in front of the courtroom, there was a line of journalists waiting to get in. It was a  "line" only in the Italian sense, which, to the shock of British colleagues, is basically a pileup in front of a barrier guarded by a police  officer.  I shoved my way in with the second group allowed through and quickly descended the  15th-century stone stairs to the frescoed courtroom to grab a place.  A railing separated the press area from the courtroom.

The courtroom was still empty, and in a flash the barons of Italian print sized up the room, scooted around the railing and were comfortably seated in the two rows of seats reserved for lawyers and family members. Police officers told them they couldn’t sit there, and an argument ensued.  I grabbed a place, legs wide, in the front row behind the railing, as cameramen and photographers scurried in to stake their claims and place their ladders. 

The next time I looked, they were caged!

Most Italian penal courts have cages where particularly risky defendants sit  --  and this one is no exception.  The journalists up front had decided to occupy the defendants’ cage! 

We were all wondering, in fact, whether they would put Knox and Sollecito in the cages.  “If they do, I have my headline,” we all thought.

But no, the journalists had taken center stage, so to speak. Perfectly happy, and indifferent to any possible insinuations, there they stayed until the judge arrived and deemed the arrangement “inappropriate.”  He invited them to leave the cages and cameras to leave the courtroom before the trial could begin.

The journalists filed out, but the camera operators resisted until they were finally forced out.  The problem was, the still cameras were allowed to stay  --  and get the shot everyone wanted: Amanda and Raffaele in court, she smiling and relaxed, he thin and tense.

When the court recessed to decide whether the trial should be open to the press or not, the television crews went on the attack. They called over police  officers, investigators and prosecutors and demanded at least 10  minutes, without the still photographers, to film the defendants in court.  It wasn’t fair that the still photographers could  stay  and they couldn’t, they argued.

So, in typical Italian fashion, the authorities present in the room at that moment (not the judge) took it upon themselves to allow cameras in  --  not only in  the press area, but into the courtroom itself.  The beast was unleashed as a dozen cameras plus the still photographers swarmed around the defendants. It took all of the police forces in the room, including the penitentiary police, to restore order.

And while that was going on, the deans of print quietly crept back up front, and took what they felt were their rightful seats.

When the jury returned, it announced it had decided to keep the trial open to the public but to keep still and video cameras out of the courtroom for the duration, so those hard-fought and chaotic moments of video are the only ones we will see of Knox and Sollecito in court, until perhaps the verdict, many months away.

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