Editor's note: Nina Burleigh is an author and journalist, a contributing editor at Salon.com and Elle Magazine, and author of "The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox" (Broadway, 2011), her fifth nonfiction book. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
(CNN) -- As Amanda Knox left prison, a free woman for the first time in four years, many were left wondering how someone they've been told was responsible for a bloody murder could walk free.
For four years, people have been hearing how "Foxy Knoxy," an "angel-faced killer," led her rich Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and a "drifter" named Rudy Guede into a "sex game gone wrong" the night after Halloween 2007, finally stabbing British exchange student Meredith Kercher to death with a kitchen knife. Through the course of a trial and an appeal, it became clear that the police had no material evidence for this theory and no plausible witnesses.
Our obsession with female evil, our fascination with the possibility of a depraved criminal hiding behind a pretty face, drove the coverage of this case, eliciting innuendo as fact, and excluding at least half of the narrative. Only the most die-hard crime story aficionados even know the name Rudy Guede, who was already in jail for Kercher's murder.
Even as Knox returned to Seattle, people around the world, especially in Italy, will never be convinced she is anything other than a sexual psychotic who bewitched two men into killing for her in the name of lust.
I began researching my book on the case in 2009 assuming that Knox was guilty. But after only a month in Italy, I realized that almost no evidence supported the charge. Eventually, I corresponded with Knox in prison. The young woman I interacted with seemed troubled by her incarceration, a bit detached and naive, but overall not much different from other women her age.
During my investigation, I came to realize that even though three people were convicted of killing Kercher, most people I met who were not reporters could only recall the name of the woman.
None of the journalists in the huge pack in Perugia over the years made any but the most casual efforts to uncover the life story and habits of small-time break-in artist Rudy Guede, whose fingerprints were in the murder room, who never denied being there as Kercher was bleeding to death, and who has been convicted of murdering her in a separate trial.
His own story -- an immigrants' son, adopted and then disowned by one of the richest families in Perugia, suffering from fugue states and sleep-walking -- makes him one of the more interesting characters in the case. His past criminal history involving break-ins certainly made him worthy of more study, but no one was inclined to pursue his tale.
One reason for the focus on "Foxy Knoxy" to the exclusion of the men is the Italian attitude toward women. The story is rooted in a spirituality based in sex and the worship of the female. In Italy, the word "veneration" comes from Venus, goddess of fertility, called in Italian, Venere. The primeval object of "veneration" was the goddess with the power to call forth desire from men, and to make barren women fertile.
In modern Italy, one feminine deity is venerated above the rest: Mary, the mother of Jesus. The young virgin is worshipped apart from God or Christ and the Mary cult is stronger in Italy than in any other European nation. The flip side to Italian veneration of the female deity is her legendary insatiable neediness, the voracious desire and jealousy of females, embodied in the whore, who is also still very much a part of modern Italian culture. Either incarnation carries terrible powers.
All women are assumed to be in possession of bewitching seductive powers, but proper women are assumed to know how to use control and limit those powers. Modern young women visiting Italy might not recognize those limits, though, because the stripper or girly show girl was so mainstreamed in Italy, especially during the years of Silvio Berlusconi's control of Italian television and politics.
Perugia's Madonna delle Grazie in the Duomo is a larger-than-life, clearly pregnant young woman, painted in 1515 by one of Perugia's Renaissance greats. She wears a brocade blue dress, and her pale eyes are strangely distant and slightly uneven. Perugians hundreds of years ago adorned her image with a real crown. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, a staunch traditional Catholic, kept her image hanging on the wall behind his desk and spoke of how she had helped his uncle escape from certain death at the hands of the Russians in the 1940s.
The Madonna has a pale, heart-shaped face, tiny pert nose, light distant eyes, and small perfect mouths. Knox bears an uncanny resemblance to both of them. The hippie soccer player from 21st century Seattle could have been the Renaissance artist's model.
Many forces abetted the confusion over this very simple if horrible crime, which was almost surely a robbery gone wrong. Superstition, shoddy police work, cultural and actual mistranslation were among those forces. The sexuality of the female at the center of the narrative was one of them.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Nina Burleigh.