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The tragedy that transpired in the fall of 2007 at a cottage flat in the Umbrian city of Perugia between a British student, a troubled young local, a Seattle woman eager to learn the language and culture, and her Italian boyfriend, ignited a global controversy that dragged across several years, multiple trials, and fueled international debate over the miscarriage of justice.
The nearly decade-long legal battle endured by Seattle-native Amanda Knox began with the shocking murder of the then-20-year-old's housemate, Meredith Kercher on the night of Nov. 1, 2007. Kercher, a 21-year-old British politics and languages student, known to pals as Mez, was visiting Italy from the University of Leeds to absorb the culture and language, just like her new American friend. The young women shared a four-bedroom ground-floor flat in a cottage with two other Italian women, who were out of town the night of Kercher’s horrific murder. What happened to Knox in the weeks and years after she returned to the flat the morning of Nov. 2 sunk her into a legal hell that played out in disparate news coverage on each side of the Atlantic, sparking a still-smoldering debate on sexism and media bias. Now, Kercher's murder by a young local and Knox's never-ending nightmare has inspired the Matt Damon-led thriller's central mystery, "Stillwater."
The film, as writer-director Tom McCarthy has said ahead of its nationwide release this week, takes a kernel of Knox’s ordeal — an American student imprisoned for murder abroad under dubious circumstances — to launch into a story that pushes into themes of cultural and legal barriers and identity crises while subverting the rough-and-tumble "ugly American" movie trope. “Stillwater'' is being widely referred to as very much about Knox's experiences. On this, McCarthy has said that there is “no similarity in our two stories beyond an American student in jail.” Yet, given the brutal details in his script’s fictional crime and what happened to Kercher in Perugia, the roles played by protective parents of accused young women, and how questionable genetic evidence factored into botched detective work and legal proceedings in both his script and Knox's legal battles, there may, in fact, be more than just that small kernel at play.
[Warning: Spoilers for “Stillwater” below]
The accused woman in “Stillwater” is Allison, who's introduced in her mid-20s after spending five years imprisoned for the murder of her French-Arab girlfriend, Lina, years earlier. The murder took place in the home they shared while Allison was studying in Marseille, France’s grand and gritty Mediterranean metropolis. Details of what happened are slowly revealed throughout the film: infidelity had strained the couple’s relationship, the brutal murder took place inside their home, and a young French-Arab man called Akim may or may not have been involved in the crime.
In 2007, Knox and Kercher had become friendly, having attended a few events over their six-week friendship, including the EuroChocolate festival and a classical music concert. That’s where Knox met Raffaele Sollecito, a 23-year-old engineering student. Unlike Allison and Lina in "Stillwater," Kercher and Knox were not romantically involved; By late October, both had met Italian suitors. One mid-October night, after arriving home late, they’d spent some time downstairs with the young Italian men sharing the flat below theirs. It was then that they first met Rudy Guede, a local 20-year-old who’d been living in Perugia for 15 years after moving from the Ivory Coast as a boy. Guede, who had recently become friendly with the men downstairs, would eventually kill Kercher and after his arrest, implicate Knox and Sollecito in her killing.
Rather than focusing tightly on the mystery surrounding the fictional murder at its center, “Stillwater” shifts most of its narrative to the experience of a parent of the accused — in this case, Matt Damon’s gruff-but-working-on-it Okie oil rig worker, Bill Baker — as he navigates the thorniness of his daughter’s circumstances, a foreign legal process, and the frequently rough streets of Marseille. In the film, Baker eventually tracks down Akim, the young French-Arab on whom Allison has presented potential new evidence to her dad. Baker’s hunt for Akim soon becomes a winding mess that involves bribing xenophobic locals. His manhunt leads Baker directly into a violent attack — an experience worlds apart from what is known of Edda Mellas and Curt Knox's time in Italy.
Days after his daughter’s arrest, Curt Knox hired Gogerty Marriott, one of the largest public relations firms in Seattle, to handle the media reaction to the murder case unfolding nearly 6,000 miles away. In press across Europe, “Foxy Knoxy” would soon be portrayed as a sex-crazed party girl, which her father assured ABC News was the opposite of her personality. The PR machine her father put into play kept this nonsense mostly at bay in U.S. media. As the situation rapidly worsened for Knox, her parents, long-divorced at this point, flew to Europe — as does Damon’s “Stillwater” character — to visit and support their imprisoned girl. And like the fictional Butler, who relocates from Oklahoma to a extended-stay Best Western in Marseille, Knox’s determined parents spent what was reportedly all of their money during Knox's legal ordeal.
It got worse for them, too, as the legal cases played out in the European courts. In 2009, both Mellas and Curt Knox were charged with criminal defamation in Italy for comments they’d made to a British newspaper repeating what they’d been told by Amanda of Perugia police officers’ treatment of her while under interrogation. After that allegation was printed in the London Times, eight officers complained to the courts that they were victims of libel. Neither parent attended the trial in person; in 2016, Knox was acquitted of the charge involving her accusation of physical abuse by police.
That acquittal, nine years after her roommate’s tragic death, was the final exoneration for Knox in the case that upended her life. She was found guilty at her initial trial in 2009 and handed a 26-year prison sentence; this, of course, came after two years of global character assassination, public accusations that Kercher's murder was part of a deadly sex game she’d concocted, and press in multiple countries that sifted through aspects of her personal life that went as deep as her childhood soccer field nickname. Knox's appeal trial, which came after years in an Italian prison, had major pieces of dubious evidence tossed out and concluded in 2011 with her and Sollecito freed. But that was overturned in 2014 when Italy’s highest court decided that the appeals court had failed to order new DNA tests or to focus on circumstantial evidence now deemed crucial. It wasn’t until 2015 that Knox was finally fully exonerated by the Italian justice system of killing Kercher.
Genetic evidence proved crucial in that exoneration. It’s key to the plot of “Stillwater,” too, as Damon's Butler spends a chunk of the movie’s runtime trying to pull a piece of DNA off the suspected killer to link it to the mysterious DNA found at the murder scene, which couldn't be tied to anyone by detectives and was swept away as irrelevant. As is the case with Kercher’s murder, DNA was found all over the crime scene — Guede’s DNA, as well as his bloody fingerprints. Over the years that Knox and Sollecito’s trials captivated millions, numerous truly basic errors were made in the gathering and analysis of evidentiary DNA. This was also the case with the contamination on a knife and bra clasp presented to the court as genetic evidence. In each trial in Italy, these became key pieces of evidence that swayed verdicts in both directions.
In Perugia, it was the multiple DNA profiles recovered from the room where Kercher was murdered that implicated Guede. His fast-track 2008 trial ended in a guilty verdict on charges of sexual assault and murder; he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In December, an Italian court ruled the then-34-year-old could finish the rest of his sentence with community service.
In “Stillwater,” the mystery DNA evidence found at the crime scene ultimately traces back to young Akim. Similarly to Guede’s fate, it’s implied that he is closed in on by authorities as the gears of a European legal system start to churn against the foreign migrant as it becomes clear that the full truth of what happened may never be publicly known.
While in no way a full reflection of the true events, the plot of “Stillwater” has these clear similarities to the details of Kercher’s murder and the decade of hell that followed for Knox; the film presents a tweaked version of the circumstances to that tragedy while pinpointing — rather dangerously — an entirely different figure as culpable for its central crime. Yet in the film’s closing moments, amid the script's blurring effect on a horrific crime and devastating loss of a young woman's life, the identity disturbance and deep psychological strife that Allison explains to her father she feels after years in prison do recall a comment Knox made in an interview with The Guardian the year before her exoneration.
“I am a marked person, and no one who's unmarked is going to understand that,” she told the newspaper. “I don't even know what my place is anymore.”
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