The Butterfly Effect

How the trial of Amanda Knox, half a world away, made a bunch of Americans miserable, spawned a justice league, and maybe started a scientific revolution. Maybe.

When Mark Waterbury first heard the name Amanda Knox five years ago, he didn’t read blogs, let alone write for one. A 50-something material scientist working as chief technology officer for a Seattle-area product-development firm, Waterbury had long abandoned his love of writing. But reading about the case in Perugia, Italy—where Knox, a 20-year-old exchange student from Seattle, had been charged with the bloody murder of another student, Meredith Kercher—Waterbury had something to say.

He left a comment on the trial blog of Italian journalist Frank Sfarzo, questioning the validity of the forensic evidence being presented by the prosecution. It was the first step of a five-year journey that would change the trajectory of his life.

“I had never commented on a blog in my life,” the 60-year-old says, sitting in a physics lab at Bellevue College where he is now an adjunct instructor. “So I made a comment or two, and then the Guilters, this group of people who are ferociously determined that Amanda must be guilty and a horrible, evil person . . . would pounce all over the things I had written and denounce it and scream and shout.”

Rather than contend with the anti-Knox contingent, Waterbury started his own blog. He disabled comments and began to parse the forensic evidence being presented by the prosecution.

“Pseudoscience,” he calls it, his s ’s whistling softly as he speaks. While forensic science wasn’t Waterbury’s field—he possesses a Ph.D. in material science from Michigan State University—his expertise allowed him to see basic flaws in the prosecutors’ methods. “You puff yourself up, you put on your outfit, you put on this grand show, and you say, ‘Science says this!’ And it’s bullshit, absolute bullshit.”

Waterbury was scorned by the Guilters while his blog gained notice with advocates, including an early group called Friends of Amanda, which raised both money for Knox’s defense and awareness of some doubts surrounding the accusations against her. The scientist was invited to become part of the group. At one point he gained an audience with Knox’s family. He quit his job as CTO and started his own product-development company, which floundered and eventually failed while he spent 50 to 60 hours each week researching and writing about the case.

Waterbury continued to press the case even after Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of the murder. At the time an appeals trial started in early 2011, he self-published a book, The Monster of Perugia. Along the way, he got a nasty case of the shingles, from which he is still recovering. Then when Knox and Sollecito were acquitted of the crime, he got out.

“I’ve finally posted one of the last videos, for me, related to this case,” he wrote in his blog on April 21, 2012. “I have moved on to other challenges, and wish Amanda and Raffaele rich, fulfilling, and free lives.”

When Knox and Sollecito were acquitted, the ordeal appeared to be over. That contention has been dealt a blow with the Italian Supreme Court’s March decision to throw out the acquittal and retry Knox and Sollecito in absentia. Even without that late-breaking development, Knox, now 25, continues to be one of the most famous women in the world. Her renown earned the Seattleite a book deal with Harper Collins for her memoir, Waiting to Be Heard, published earlier this week. The $4 million advance turned the student into the highest-paid author currently with the University of Washington’s creative-writing program, including her professors.

Any contention that life could go back to normal for Knox, Sollecito, or the Kercher family was of course absurd. But the same can be said for a devoted clutch of bloggers and reporters like Waterbury: Whether they were convinced of Knox’s guilt or sure of her innocence, all have seen their lives transformed by the saga they observed and poured thousands of hours into. The exhausted writers were afflicted with poor heath and psychological strain. Today, some say the trial has changed them for the better. For others, they simply call what’s come over their lives a “curse.”

Bruce Fischer, a Chicago-area family man who manages a pair of auto retail stores, stumbled upon the case on Facebook shortly after Knox and Sollecito were convicted. He has since become a leader in the pro-Knox camp and written two books about the case.

“It does almost become a sort of obsession,” says Fischer, who estimates he spent three to four hours each night on the case, up until the acquittal. “You almost have to become obsessed with something if you want to advocate for it and stay energized to fight it.”

When Fischer entered the fray, he found that a loose network of activists, including Waterbury, had been forming. Fischer didn’t have an area of expertise, but he did have time. In early 2010 he launched Injustice in Perugia, a community website that hosted analysis from advocates, updates for the curious, and forums for supporters.

“It was really a life-changing experience; it kind of hit me in the face,” Fischer says. “I was never interested in wrongful-conviction cases in my life; I paid no attention to it at all. I just assumed that everyone who was arrested, tried, and found guilty was guilty.”

Since the acquittal, Fischer has used the resources and expertise at Injustice in Perugia to form a new organization, Injustice Anywhere, aimed “to help bring more knowledge and attention to wrongful convictions and to work to bring much needed reform.” The group is currently working to overturn convictions in five other cases.

Though Fischer views the experience as a positive one, he has watched the case take its toll on some of his cohorts. As the hours and stress mounted, health problems arose; some people lost weight; in at least one case, an advocate lost his job; and an assistant to Friends of Amanda legal counsel Anne Bremner died of melanoma.

“Almost everyone who was deeply involved in the defense effort paid a price,” Waterbury says. “We came to call it ‘Mignini’s curse.’ ”

Named for the case’s notorious prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, it might have spread beyond Fischer’s community.

“It is a terrible, tragic story, and it took a lot out of me,” says independent author and journalist Nina Burleigh, who shed pounds and tangled with bedbugs and Internet stalkers while writing the best-selling account of the case, The Fatal Gift of Beauty. “I put a lot of effort into dissecting the superstitions of Perugia. After a year there, I came to the conclusion that although I am a skeptic and an atheist, when lots of people believe in things like black magic and witches, weird things do happen.” 

It is difficult to discern whether those who believe in Knox’s guilt have been similarly afflicted, as most are anonymous. But Peggy Ganong, the moderator of the website Perugia Murder File whose identity was revealed by Knox supporters, says she at least experienced a slight shift in perspective. She credits the case for encouraging her to learn Italian while also completely destroying her trust in U.S. media, which she believes bent to a highly funded public-relations campaign on the part of Knox’s family.

“No impact on my career or the income derived from it,” says the Seattle resident who works as a freelance translator. “No impact on my health. As for my perspective on life, there has necessarily been a change. I can’t say I had a great deal of confidence in the mainstream media, but whatever confidence I may have had is mostly gone.”

As for the upcoming retrial, Ganong has little taste for it. “I will be happy when I am able to put no time at all into this case,” she says. “Like many of the actual journalists who really covered it . . . I am tired of the whole thing.”

Fischer, though, is fired up. “As they say in The Blues Brothers, ‘We’re bringing the band back together,’ ” he says, with some glee. “It’s different now because Amanda is free; Raffaele is free. It’s a different scenario now than it was in the past.”

For his part, Waterbury is planning to stay away from the case. Though he might read Knox’s memoir, he says that he is more concerned with writing his own books.

“As I started to write these [blog posts], I realized that my heart wasn’t really in product development,” Waterbury says. “I wanted to do something that had more value for myself and had more value for civilization, for society.”

Waterbury is working on two popular-science books. One, Life in a Crowded Cosmos, argues that “sophisticated life” likely exists on billions of planets. The other, yet to be titled, is a treatise on the “soliton,” a type of energy wave that he sees at play in the world around us.

“I think that revolutions, addictions, habits, all kinds of social phenomenon behave like these special, unusual solitary waves,” he says. “They’re waves with a particular longevity; I call them a wave with an instinct for survival. I tend to get a little melodramatic.”

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