Homeless Man Puts Knox Near Crime Scene

American student's Italian murder trial proceeds with day of colorful testimony.

March 28, 2009, 1:42 PM

PERUGIA, Italy, March 28, 2009 -- A homeless man testifying in the Italian murder trial of American exchange student Amanda Knox today said that he had seen Knox and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito talking animatedly in an outdoor plaza on the night Knox's former roommate, English student Meredith Kercher, was killed.

Antonion Curatolo, 53, who testified that he spends most of his time in a Perugia, Italy square near the cottage where Knox and Kercher lived, placed the young couple near the murder scene on Nov. 1, 2007. Kercher was found dead in the cottage with knife wounds to the throat the next day. Curatolo's testimony contradicted Knox and Sollecito's contention that they were at Sollecito's home that night.

Knox, 21, and Sollecito, 25, are charged with sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher. A third person, Rudy Guede, 22, was convicted in October for participation in the crime, although he denied involvement.

Both defendants, who maintain their innocence, were in court for the day's proceedings. The two appeared relaxed and attentive.

Knox Trial: Sollecito Peers at House

Also testifying today was Herkuran Kokomani, a young Albanian immigrant currently serving a jail term for drug possession, who recounted a bizarre nighttime encounter with Knox and Sollecito involving a knife and thrown olives and a cell phone.

Wheeled to the witness stand in an office chair, Curatolo, who has a long, gray beard and wore a coat, hat and scarf in court, said that he had been sleeping on a park bench in Perugia's Piazza Grimana for eight or nine years.

He was testifying "because it is a question of conscience," he said, adding that he did not wish to harm anyone.

On the night before Kercher's body was discovered, he said, he was sitting on a bench in Piazza Grimana, reading a news magazine and smoking cigarettes. The plaza was busy with young people, he said, but he noticed one couple, whom he identified in court as Knox and Sollecito, talking animatedly. At one point Sollecito went to a railing at the edge of the square and looked down in the direction of the house where Kercher was killed, Curatolo said.

The couple was in the square from about 9:30 p.m. until just before midnight, he said. Based on an autopsy, investigators believe that Kercher died in the same time period.

Two women testified Friday that they heard a scream coming from the direction of the house where Kercher was murdered Nov. 1. between 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

Knox lawyer Luciano Ghirga challenged Curatolo's testimony in a statement to reporters after the hearing. "Amanda was not happy with what Curatolo had to say, because she was not there that night," Ghirga said.

Bizarre Nighttime Encounter

Kokomani, who was escorted into court by prison guards, recounted in broken Italian a bizarre nighttime encounter with the young couple and the convicted perpetrator, Guede. At several points he seemed to reverse himself or to contradict prior statements he had given police, however, and his testimony was difficult to follow.

Kokomani had already testified, in October of last year, at a preliminary hearing in the murder case. The presiding judge wrote at the time that Kokomani was unreliable.

Driving past Knox's cottage on either the night of the murder or the night before, Kokomani said, he noticed what looked like a large garbage bag in the middle of the road. He tried to brake, he said, but skidded on the wet road and bumped into the bag. At that point he realized that it was not a bag, but two people, whom he identified in court as Knox and Sollecito.

Sollecito approached his car in a threatening manner, he said, and he punched Sollecito. Knox then pulled a large knife out of her green handbag and brandished it at him, holding it with two hands, he said.

"I grabbed some olives that were in my car, and threw them at her," said Kokomani. "And I also threw a Nokia cell phone at her."

At that point he saw Rudy Guede, Kokomani said, whom he had met before. When he asked Guede what the two young people were doing with the knives, "He told me they were having a party, and the knife was for the cake," Kokomani testified.

According to Kokomani, Guede offered him $400 to borrow his car the next day. Then he said he saw Sollecito in his rear-view mirror approaching the car with a knife. Kokomani said that at that point he drove away.

He also testified that he had taken a picture with his cell phone of Knox holding the knife but later erased it.

Uncertain Timing of Encounter

Kokomani could not say with any certainty what night this episode took place – whether it was Oct. 31 or Nov. 1, 2007.

Ghirga, Knox lawyers, called Kokomani's testimony was "an example of catastrophic testimony."

Listening to Kokomani's testimony, Knox relied on her interpreter more than usual. At one point she put her hands to her face in a gesture of disbelief.

A lawyer for Raffaele Sollecito, Marco Brusco, said Kokomani's testimony was "disconcerting."

A third witness, Fabio Gioffredi, an unemployed young man from Perugia, told the court that two days before the murder he saw Knox, Sollecito, Kercher and someone he said he thought was Rudy Guede walking together up the street from Knox and Kercher's cottage.

"I could not see the man behind Sollecito clearly, but I had the impression that it was Rudy Guede," said Gioffredi.

He had seen Guede before, he said, handing out pamphlets in front of the university. He said that he was 99.9 percent sure it was Guede.

Gioffredi also said that he noticed Knox because she was wearing an unusual red coat with big red buttons.

Gioffredi's account prompted Sollecito to stand up in court, as defendants can do in Italy, and make a statement. Sollecito said he wanted to make it clear that Gioffredi could not have seen him with Guede "because I don't know Rudy Guede, I have never seen him in my life."

Sollecito also told the court that he had never seen Amanda Knox wear a red coat. "What he [the witness] said, is impossible," continued Sollecito. "I was somewhere else on that day, and this will be demonstrated later in the trial."

The trial continues next week and is expected to last well into next summer.