Crowd delirium

Urbain Grandier, as Aldous Huxley recounts (The Devils of Loudon, 1952), was a French clergyman of the seventeenth century. In 1634 he was executed. He’d been tried and found guilty of witchcraft. This charge had a sexual dimension; the nuns who first accused Grandier (in 1632) said that he had sent devils to seduce them. Of course, no modern person would admit to believing in witchcraft, so it’d surely be hard to find anyone today who thought that Grandier’s burning at the stake in front of a large crowd was warranted. To modern eyes, Grandier’s story comes across as picturesque and barbaric; and, ultimately, remote.

There are some other things relevant to Grandier’s case. (Bear in mind that Grandier was real person.) Despite torture, he never confessed to anything. But he had been critical of authority (specifically, Cardinal Richelieu). He was good looking, and he had a reputation as sexually adventurous.

But anyway, that was a long time ago.

Take Colin Stagg, then. In 1992 he was prosecuted for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Stagg never confessed to anything (despite attempts at entrapment by an undercover police woman, posing as a love interest). No evidence connected him with the crime he was accused of. The Metropolitan Police still went ahead and put him on trial for the murder, literally on the grounds that they believed he was the kind of man who would have done it. The case against him failed – as you’d hope. But the Daily Mail continued to insinuate, for almost a decade, that Stagg was a sexual deviant who had ‘gotten away with murder’. In 2008 a man already committed for murder was convicted of the crime Stagg had been accused of.

Hysteria is a word that’s been used. Huxley suggests ‘crowd-delirium’:

… the crowd-delirium can be indulged in, not merely without a bad conscience, but actually, in many cases, with a positive glow of conscious virtue.

I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suggest that where crowd-delirium exists today, it’s at least partly embodied in newspaper reporting. The 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, seems to have set off something very nasty. Here’s Sue Carroll in the Mirror:

Articulate and flirtatious with moist Bambi eyes, her status, carefully manipulated by her garrulous publicity-driven parents, morphed from suspected murderer to victim long before the trial. A flight home had been arranged and grandiose plans were afoot for the prodigal daughter’s return with lucrative book deals in the pipeline, movie rights under discussion and TV interviews planned.

The brutal murder of a beautiful young girl in a vile sex game was turned into a side issue. The fact Knox had wantonly and without a single vestige of shame named an innocent man, Patrick Lumumba, as Meredith’s killer was also conveniently forgotten by fans and family.

And here’s Libby Purves in the Times:

The American campaign for Amanda Knox (nobody seems to bother about Guede or Sollecito) is almost libellously critical of the Italian court; but for what it’s worth, both evidence and reconstruction look pretty convincing to me. Not least because of the perpetrators’ heavy use of drugs and drink — the defence put their changing stories down to memory loss — and because of the febrile sexual obsession that seems to have driven the young attackers.

It seems unlikely that it was deliberate murder: more like an extreme episode of disinhibited, brain-fogged sexual bullying that ran out of control. Three against one, fuelled by a toxic mixture of male excitement and female resentment of a “prig”.

You need more than imagination for a just conviction, and there isn’t evidence for a “vile sex game” or “brain-fogged sexual bullying”. It’s overwhelmingly likely that the ‘sex game’ theory is nothing more than a construct of the prosecution. And I’d suggest, incidentally, that a plausible explanation of why the investigation turned to Lumumba (a black man) is that the police attempted to fit him up by extracting a suitable confession from Amanda Knox; and that they did this on the basis that Knox had sent a text message to Lumumba (her employer) which said ‘ci vediamo’ (‘see you later’).

The more you look at the story of Sollecito and Knox, the more innocent they seem. And if they are innocent, all you have in their conviction is further injustice to add to the original crime. By contrast, there is much stronger evidence against Guede, who was convicted earlier this year. I suspect that this is the very obvious direction of travel for those not ‘transcending downwards’. But there’s a species of opinion writer that’s not interested in the rights or wrongs of one individual case. Purves again:

What is really sad though — see, even I jib at saying “wrong” — is the idea of “adventurousness”: sex made “zipless”, gourmet, divorced from affection, understanding, wonder or hope. You clock a hot piece, pull, mate and discard with hardly a name-check. It rounds off the evening but blunts your humanity. Many grow out of it and find faithful partnerships. Some find later life haunted by it. Some misunderstand the other party’s intentions and are devastated, or become stalkers.

At worst, a few confuse the general tolerance with permission to bully and coerce.

But as adventures go, frankly, the fling-culture is rubbish. And the saddest thing of all is how very miffed many people will be with me, for saying so.

A shorter Purves: someone must be doing something wrong; someone should burn.

14 thoughts on “Crowd delirium

  1. Isn’t murder and (maybe) a wrongful conviction sad? Contrast that with a consensual fun activity that might not be best for the development of sound personal character and we need to focus on the flings?

  2. Would you put the (alleged) killers of Stephen Lawrence into the same category (I have no views either way on their guilt or innocence btw) ?

  3. If you mean some category ‘guilt not established with respect to a set of crimes x’, then yes, I’d say they’re in the same category. But that might be a huge category which included almost everyone.

    If on the other hand you mean, am I sympathetic to Neil Acourt, et al., given what the Daily Mail says and given the absence of any conviction for Stephen Lawrence’s murder, then then the answer is yes, to some extent. But some of these characters carry other convictions, don’t they? It’s not as though I’d be likely to choose them as friends.

  4. Lets assume there would not have been an international dimension to this case. All parties domestic Italian. Would you still have written about it?

    Considering how poorly the Italian justice system often works (especially in political and Mafia trials), this case seem to have been treated within reason. I can’t detect any scandalous burning at the stake. IMHO etc. But lets see what the higher courts are going to rule. Worst case (shockingly for Brits or Amis) last exit opportunity for the convicts might be provided by a European court. But I think the Italians have the ability and will to handle this.

  5. Hard to say. Sollecito is Italian, though.

    But it seems to me that the Italian judicial system should:

    (a) Tighten restrictions on prejudicial press reporting;

    (b) Stop prosecutors from telling crazy stories to juries without supporting evidence. Or disbar crazy prosecutors, period. This particular prosecutor – Mignini – has form in that he’s currently being prosecuted himself for feeding the press his satanic rituals theory about the ‘Monster of Florence’ killings.

    And I’d call it a stake burning in that the prosecution called for the harshest penalty available – life imprisonment, with the first part of the term to be served in solitary.

    Let’s hope it gets resolved at appeal.

  6. Odd. I had been thinking the American response was the example of mass-delirium but, naturally, that would not be apparent to someone in the midst of it. Certainly the faith demonstrated and the convolutions depended on to construct an Italian stitch-up would suggest that more emotion than reason is involved.

    First of all, nobody was convicted for ‘sexual adventurism’. I don’t imagine you could be arguing that the demonstrable instability in the personalities of the primary suspects was irrelevant, considering your mention of the ‘crazy’ prosecutor’s zeal.

    What’s more repeatedly lying about your whereabouts is a perfectly rational refusal to incriminate oneself, so no need to reach for arguments ad absurdum of ‘febrile sexual obsession’.

    Using tabloid moralism from entirely another country as corroboration for it being a witch-hunt is really a stretch. I wonder if your other posts have been using evidence as specious? Thankfully perhaps, emotion doesn’t tend to blur opinions on global money supply.

    Yes, the evidence points to their being more inciters and accessories to the murder than perpetrators, but then a harsh sentence is the risk they took when they refused to cooperate with the investigation. Being punished for choosing not to plea bargain might be tough but hardly grounds for outrage.

    Countless African-Americans have been sent to their deaths on less incriminating evidence, to even less notice from both your blog and prosperous, white America. Is the socioeconomic and racial circling of the wagons really so hard to see? Let’s hope, rather, that instead of trying to get off scot-free, the perpetrators might describe what actually happened that night so that an appropriate sentence could be handed down.

  7. Alex, I think that what you say is pompous tendentious crap, and I won’t try to respond to any of it except this:

    Let’s hope, rather, that instead of trying to get off scot-free, the perpetrators might describe what actually happened that night so that an appropriate sentence could be handed down.

    What you miss entirely here is the concept of burden of proof.

  8. Pompous, certainly, but that bullshit Purves straw-man you pulled out really got my goat. In my pique, it seems, I was needlessly insulting and I apologise for that. As to your point, of course I wilfully ignored due process, self-indictment, doubt etc. I happened to be evoking a fantasy world where defendants own up and turkeys carve themselves up at Christmas, albeit perhaps out-of-place as a conclusion.

    That said, the crux of the difference in our interpretations is merely on which party of the interrogation one ascribes the untruths to. I hardly think that allows you to pretend that any crystalline jurisprudence is carrying you to the moral high ground.

  9. That said, the crux of the difference in our interpretations is merely on which party of the interrogation one ascribes the untruths to.

    Well, sure. I do think, though, that we should take into account that a significant percentage (25% by some measures) of wrongful convictions involve the wrongly accused confessing to the police. I also think that a prosecutor’s track record is relevant. Mignini seems to come up with ‘satanic ritual’ theories remarkably often.

    On Purves: I think that her piece is badly judged, and above all, incredibly mean. Having set up her little moralistic fable, she makes assertions about the two people who’ve just been convicted and suggests that they got what was coming to them. But what she says about Sollecito and Knox just isn’t supported by facts. What’s more, there’s reason to think that British newspaper reporting in general had influence on the trial. Does Purves want in on that?

  10. Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were unanimously found guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher because the evidence against them was overwhelming.

    They repeatedly told the police a pack of lies in the days after Meredith’s murder.

    On 5 November 2007, Knox and Sollecito were confronted with proof that they had lied and were given another opportunity to tell the truth. However, they both chose to tell the police even more lies.

    Sollecito’s new alibi was shattered by computer forensic evidence and his mobile phone records.

    Knox accused an innocent man, Diya Lumumba, of murdering Meredith despite knowing full well that he was completely innocent. She didn’t recant her false and malicious allegation against Lumumba the whole time he was in prison. She admitted that it was her fault that Lumumba was in prison in an intercepted conversation with her mother.

    Knox’s account of what happened on 2 November 2007 is contradicted by her mobile phone records.

    Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito both gave multiple conflicting alibis. Neither Knox nor Sollecito have credible alibis for the night of the murder despite three attempt each. At the trial, Sollecito refused to corroborate Knox’s alibi that she was at his apartment.

    Rudy Guede’s bloody footprints led straight out of Meredith’s room and out of the house. He didn’t lock Meredith’s door, remove his trainers, go into Filomena’s room or the bathroom that Meredith and Knox shared.

    He didn’t scale the vertical wall outside Filomena’s room or gain access through the window. The break-in was clearly staged. This indicates that somebody who lived at the cottage was trying to deflect attention away from themselves and give the impression that a stranger had broken in and killed Meredith.

    Guede had no reason to stage the break-in and there was no physical evidence that he went into Filomena’s room.

    The scientific police found a mixture of Amanda Knox’s DNA and Meredith’s blood on the floor.

    There was no physical evidence that Rudy Guede went into the blood-spattered bathroom. However, the scientific police found irrefutable proof that Knox and Sollecito tracked Meredith’s blood into this bathroom.

    Amanda Knox’s DNA was found mingled with Meredith’s blood in three different places in the bathroom: on the ledge of the basin, on the bidet, and on a box of Q Tips cotton swabs. Knox’s DNA and Meredith’s blood had united into one single streak on the basin and bidet which means they were deposited simultaneously.

    Sollecito left a visible bloody footprint on the blue bathmat.

    According to two imprint experts, the woman’s bloody shoeprint on the pillow under Meredith’s body matched Knox’s foot size. The bloody shoeprint was incompatible with Meredith’s shoe size.

    Knox’s and Sollecito’s bare bloody footprints were revealed by luminol in the hallway. Knox’s DNA and Meredith’s DNA was found mixed together in one of the bloody footprints.

    An abundant amount of Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA was found on Meredith’s bra clasp. Sollecito must have applied considerable pressure to the clasp in order to have left so much DNA. The hooks on the clasp were damaged which confirms that Sollecito had gripped them tightly.

    Amanda Knox’s DNA was found on the handle of the double DNA knife and a number of independent forensic experts – Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni, Dr. Renato Biondo and Professor Francesca Torricelli – categorically stated that Meredith’s DNA was on the blade.

    Sollecito knew that Meredith’s DNA was on the blade which is why he twice lied about accidentally pricking her hand whilst cooking.

    The defence experts were unable to prove that there had been any contamination. Alberto Intini, head of the Italian police forensic science unit, pointed out that unless contamination has been proved, it does not exist.

    Amanda Knox voluntarily admitted that she involved in Meredith’s murder in her handwritten note to the police on 6 November 2007. She stated on at least four separate occasions that she was at the cottage when Meredith was killed.

    The English translation of Judge Massei’s sentencing report can be downloaded from here:

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