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The Wikipedia Convention and Amanda Knox

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(London) — This week Wikipedia will hold its 10th annual convention in London, England. Wikimania, as it is known, will probably get about 2,000 visitors from close to 75 countries. The five day event will feature over 150 presentations. One of the most important will examine their Biographies of Living Persons (BLP) policy, which deals with the fair treatment of those who are portrayed in a negative light.

Ira Brad Matetsky
Ira Brad Matetsky

The presentation will be given by Ira Brad Matetsky, a New York attorney who is also a member of Wikipedia’s powerful Arbitration Committee. Those with an interest in BLP issues would do well to focus on the Murder of Meredith Kercher article and its treatment of Amanda Knox, the Seattle area exchange student who remains at the center of a media firestorm surrounding the 2007 crime. The Wikipedia entry does not reflect the fact that many important experts have forcefully declared Knox and her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, to be innocent. The harm caused to Knox and Sollecito, by Wikipedia’s irresponsible coverage of their case has been profound.

Amanda Knox
Amanda Knox

The Kercher article may well be the most troubled entry in the otherwise extraordinary history of the popular online encyclopedia. Perceptions of the case differed markedly between Europe and the US. In fact the Wikipedia controversy pitted experienced editors from the UK against newer editors from the US. In both Italy and the UK, early tabloid reports apparently cemented ideas in many people’s minds. Once opinions were formed, there was no going back. The problem with the article is not so much what they have included as what they choose not to include. Many important sources have called into question the fairness of the trial and police investigation but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Wikipedia article.

Wikipedians might also take careful note of this proposed Wikimania presentation that was not accepted by their Program Committee. The presentation would have featured three important reliable sources who have been excluded from the current article. They include Seattle area Judge Michael Heavey, retired FBI agent Steve Moore, and retired US Department of Justice Attorney S. Michael Scadron. All three were prepared to travel to London at their own expense to challenge Wikipedia’s treatment of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.

The underlying problem was a group of British editors, many with administrator status, who were convinced of Knox and Sollecito’s guilt. All were determined in their efforts to expel anyone who disagreed with them.

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The vast majority of Wikipedia’s articles are quite accurate and pretty well written. Their model allows anyone to edit under an anonymous username. A lot of people ask how that could work, but work it does and the contribution to the education of today’s children has been profound. Everything is supposed to be based on what reliable sources have said and written from a neutral point of view. There are actually Wikipedia projects in several hundred languages. The most popular is the English language edition with over four million articles.

Background of the Kercher Case

Meredith Kercher was a British exchange student who was murdered in Perugia, Italy on November 1, 2007. Within days, her 20 year old flatmate, Amanda Knox, and two others were arrested. With tabloid claims of drug-fueled orgies, an idyllic setting, and youthful attractive figures, the case became a media sensation in Europe, mostly focused on the photogenic Ms. Knox. But much of the tabloid coverage later turned out to be wrong.

Britain’s Daily Mail ran headlines like “The Wild Raunchy Past of Foxy Knoxy” or “The Angel Faced Killer with the ice-cold eyes.”

About two weeks after the crime, forensic evidence would point straight at a local petty thief named Rudy Guede. Guede had left prints and DNA all over the murder room and he had fled to Germany a few days after the crime. In lengthy Skype calls monitored by police without his knowledge, he said that he was there and that Amanda wasn’t. He claimed that any sexual contact with Meredith was consensual and that an unknown intruder had come into the house and killed Meredith while he sat on the toilet. In the weeks before the murder his life had been in a downward spiral. With no visible source of income he had been involved in a series of break-ins including one where he threatened a homeowner with a knife.

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With the arrest of Guede, the prosecution refused to modify its theory of the crime. It was a sex game gone wrong or some sort of drug inspired Halloween ritual. Guede and Sollecito both deny ever having met each other. Amanda because she worked in a bar and he was a bar crawler vaguely knew who he was. To experienced investigators the crime was tragic but not complicated. Sexually motivated homicides of young women in their prime are invariably the work of a troubled male just like Guede.

Issues with the Wikipedia article

The trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele has emerged as one of the most controversial judicial proceedings in recent memory, yet Wikipedia makes no mention of this. Critics of the case include three retired FBI agents, an American Judge, four hour-long CBS documentaries, internationally recognized DNA experts, and many other respected journalists. In November 2013, US Senator Maria Cantwell brought in the judge and two of the FBI agents to brief the US Congress on the case. The Wikipedia article does not mention this because the British administrators who controlled the page disagreed with their point of view.

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Wikipedia articles are supposed to be about what reliable sources have said. In the case of the Kercher article many important reliable sources were presented by a group pro-innocence editors. In each case the British administrators on the page would ignore the sources and block anyone who disagreed with their opinions. I hope that Ira Brad Matetsky will take a hard look at what transpired. The misconduct is straight forward and grave and it has been laid out in black and white to their Arbitration Committee.

Many Wikipedians don’t quite understand just how easy it is to create an article that looks neutral but isn’t. If you read the Kercher article you don’t gain insight into what isn’t included. The article talks of DNA evidence that the prosecution says is incriminating and the defense says was the result of contamination. Defense attorneys always say there was contamination. In this case there are three FBI agents and an acclaimed DNA expert (Peter Gill) who have all agreed that the DNA evidence was invalid. The Wikipedia article cannot ignore that.

Another factor that Ira Brad Matetsky should consider is that sometimes the fair treatment of a living person requires responsible criticism of their persecutors. The Duke Lacrosse case wouldn’t be complete without noting the criticism of Mike Nifong, the controversial prosecutor who was eventually disbarred for his actions in the case.

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An additional irony that all Wikipedians should consider was the use of false allegations by the administrators who controlled the page. Ironically there were constant allegations of unfair treatment of the prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, and the true killer, Rudy Guede. There were no such violations of Wikipedia policy by any of the pro-innocence editors against Mignini or Guede.

The debate took a significant turn in 2011 when Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, took a hard look at the article. His statements stunned the community. Jimmy described the article as “highly biased” and talked of “systematic exclusion of reliable sources.” The Wikipedia drama was even chronicled in the Kindle single “Trial by Fury: Internet Savagery and the Amanda Knox Case” by the bestselling author Douglas Preston. But the scrutiny was short-lived and the article of today is worse than ever.

As Preston points out, the Internet debate about the case may well be unprecedented. Every indication is that no story in the history of online media comment sections has generated as much volume as the Knox case. One article in the online edition of Time by the journalist Nina Burleigh now has 4696 comments. Most Time articles have none. The number with over a hundred is probably no more than 2-3%. Wikipedia obviously can’t do anything about irresponsible behavior outside their borders but they should carefully consider how determined hate campaigns such as this one can overflow into their pages.

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One of the worst hate sites is www.truejustice.org run by New Jersey resident Peter Quennell. In the Time article Burleigh documents emails from Quennell where he talked of “training his scope on my apartment” and asking “how are the kiddies?” One of the Wikipedia administrators who implemented many blocks on the topic has written an article there under the name Gwaendar (not his Wikipedia username.) Another editor named BRMull has also authored articles on the site. In one infamous exchange directed at one of the FBI agents, the Wikipedia editor BRMull said, “that’s right Steve Moore, I’m talking about your daughter. BRMull plays for keeps.”

The closest the Wikipedia entry comes to even mentioning criticism is a quote from Nina Burleigh: “Although acknowledging that Knox might have been a person of interest for American police in similar circumstances, journalist Nina Burleigh said that the conviction had not been based on solid proof, and there had been resentment at the Knox family which amounted to “anti-Americanism.” In fact Ms. Burleigh has spoken in much stronger language. In a CBS news segment she says, “Based on my investigation Amanda Knox had nothing to do with the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher.” To balance this they quote some Italian lawyer that nobody has ever heard of as saying: “This is the simplest and fairest criminal trial one could possibly think of in terms of evidence.” None of the reliable sources seen on this page have even been mentioned in the article.

Three Reliable Sources were prepared to Travel to London

The current article says, “In the US there was a pretrial publicity campaign supporting Knox and attacking Italian investigators, but her lawyer thought it counter-productive.” In a past article they had an entire section devoted to “the Knox Family’s Public Relations Campaign.”

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In the case of the Kercher article, Wikipedia should understand that three important experts were fully willing to come to London in good faith to speak to their community. They weren’t paid by anyone; they weren’t part of somebody else’s PR Campaign, and nobody was telling them what to say. This was an American judge, a career Federal prosecutor, and a longtime FBI agent.

Seattle area Judge Michael Heavey has been an outspoken critic of the trial since the beginning. His daughter had been a classmate of Amanda’s in high school, both graduating in 2005. He has appeared on national and local media many times to speak about the case. In an open letter to President Obama and all members of congress last year he characterized the case as a “witch trial being prosecuted by a delusional prosecutor.” His reference was to the Giuliano Mignini, the controversial prosecutor in the case.

Steve Moore had a distinguished 25 year career with the FBI, retiring in 2008. His work included the investigation of white supremacist organizations, violent crime, and terrorism. In early 2010 at the urging of his wife Michelle he took a deep interest in the case. Mr. Moore has appeared numerous times on all of the major networks to comment about Amanda’s case and others.

S. Michael Scadron spent his career in the DC area with the US Department of Justice. In 2010 he authored this piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he labeled the case against Ms. Knox as a witch hunt.

The three retired FBI agents who have spoken out about the case are Steve Moore, John E Douglas, and Jim Clemente. Douglas is one of America’s leading experts on homicide investigations. During his career he interviewed many of America’s most notorious serial killers. He also founded the Investigative Support Unit of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Steve Moore and Jim Clemente also had distinguished careers. All three are breathing fire. Their commentary is not included in the Wikipedia article because the British administrators who control the page disagree with their point of view.

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Ira Brad Matetsky

As an attorney Ira Brad Matetsky should have experience with examination of points of law and points of fact. Here are some questions he should ponder: (1) Why are the reliable sources presented here not in the article? (2) Has there been even one BLP violation by any of the expelled editors? (3) Didn’t the administrators who implemented blocks on the topic have a conflict of interest? (4) How can the treatment of Knox and Sollecito be fair when all the experts who say they are innocent are excluded from the article? (5) How can a neutral article result when one side is given license to block the all the accounts from the other side? (6) Which sources presented here aren’t reliable?

Those who believe that Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito are innocent are not permitted to participate in the article. Hopefully Ira Brad Matetsky will accept this invitation to take a closer look. After all, Jimmy Wales himself has indicated that the concerns about the article are legitimate.

Wikipedia’s treatment of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito has been unfair. Experts from around the world have said they are clearly innocent. How can the powers that be within Wikipedia just stand by and watch?