It’s been a long road for Anna Vasquez and Amanda Knox, both wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. And, in some ways, the road goes on and on, despite their exonerations. The court of social media is never out of session or really that much concerned with facts.
Both Vasquez, of the “San Antonio Four,” and Knox, convicted of murder in Italy, were in Fort Worth recently to speak at Texas A&M Law School and to discuss the work of the Innocence Project of Texas.
Vasquez, in fact, now works as director of outreach and education at the Innocence Project of Texas and Knox has been active in the media discussing her case and others.
They were both young when their public sagas began – Vasquez, 19, and Knox, 20, a fact that played into their arrest and convictions.
“I thought I could handle it, even when I had it explained what was going on with the investigation,” said Vasquez. Her mother wanted to go with her to talk to investigators. “But I was like, ‘No, mom. I've got it. It's a mistake. No problem.’ ”
She has a different view now.
“What I would say now is never admit, never consent, and lawyer up,” she said to the roomful of future lawyers.
“I didn't understand truly what my rights were,” said Knox. “But even more than that, the question of my rights were the farthest thing from my mind, because my roommate had just been murdered. And the only thing that was on my mind was helping the police find out who did this to my friend.
“So, when the police pushed and when they called me in for 53 hours of questioning over five days, I thought I was helping the police. I thought we were all on the same team.”
Some quick background: The San Antonio Four were Vasquez and three other women who were convicted of the sexual assault of two underage girls in the mid-90s.
After the flimsy evidence fell apart upon further investigation, Vasquez was released on parole in 2012 after serving 13 years in prison. All four of the women's convictions were vacated and their records were expunged in 2016.
Knox, a college student in Italy at the time, was tried and convicted for the murder of her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, who died from knife wounds in the apartment she shared with Knox in 2007.
Knox and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were both found guilty of killing Kercher and sentenced to 26- and 25-year sentences. Knox and Sollecito were then acquitted, but that acquittal was overturned in 2013 and she was again convicted of murder in 2014. Her conviction was overturned in 2015.
Knox has written a book, participated in a Netflix documentary on her case and works with a podcast called The Truth About True Crime.
Both cases became fodder for the social media machine that was just beginning to ramp up in the early part of this century. Vasquez and her fellow defendants were gay and prosecutors were able to play into jury prejudices because of that.
Knox faced similar issues.
“I was depicted by my prosecutor as a drug-addled whore who was so jealous of my roommate's purity that I orchestrated an orgy-rape and then stabbed her to death. What is amazing to me about how far that story got was that people believed that. My prosecutor wouldn't have told that story if he didn't think it would work – the double standard, the Madonna-whore dichotomy, how it speaks to people's fears and fantasies.
“When you're accused, all of people's prejudices about whoever you are start coming out and start getting justified real quick. And for the majority of men who are accused, a lot of times it has to do with issues like stereotypes about poverty or race to whatever, but with women, they attack our sexuality.
“And they discredit and devalue you based upon societal norms or promiscuity virginal norms. And it doesn't matter whether or not it's true.
“One thing that I'd like to say is that I could've been a dominatrix and it shouldn't have mattered. But I wasn't even, and it did.”
Knox continues to fight against how many people view her in the media and not just those who casually call her “Foxy Knoxy,” as she became known in social media.
“It's one thing when people tell me 'you're a whore, you're a liar, you're a killer, you're a psychopath.' It's another thing when people go, ‘Amanda Knox, that tabloid trash?’ That's the casual cruelty that I'm talking about when people just assume that because you're a woman, and because you're in the tabloids, you must be a fucking train wreck. That's not true.”
Knox and Vasquez, in response to a question from a student, talked about when they both began to have hope after their convictions.
For Vasquez, it was Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, who was also at the Texas A&M event.
“Mike … came and interviewed us. As a prisoner you're sitting between glass. So, he's on one side, I'm on this one, and they make you sit down. They take off your cuffs and put you in the stool, and you're just sitting there. And this big man, he looked like he was seven foot tall.
“I didn't know what it was, I don't know if it was the confidence, the ... look at his face, it's like no bullshit. It's like, don't play with my emotions, I'm here to find out what happened … but that's what I saw. And behind all of that I did see a ray of hope.”
Knox was in a prison with people who spoke a different language and where she was “the famous one.”
“My person was very loud,” she said.
It was when she was convicted, that things flipped for her.
“I had that existential crisis of, ‘Oh, the truth doesn't matter. Oh, I'm a murderer now. And this is my life.’ And it wasn't until I had that, that I started to have a more mature and sophisticated understanding of the situation that I was in. That was when I started realizing that, well one, that life isn't fair. And two, that my power didn't reside in making the world correspond with reality. My power resided in having control over the one thing I had control over, which is my own mind,” she said.
When Knox’s conviction was overturned, there were photos of her weeping and being carried out of the courtroom, but she still didn’t know things would work out.
“But it wasn't until maybe I got a cat when I came home, that I was like, ‘Oh, everything's going to be OK.’ … The flip for me, the hope for me was just like, oh I can have a life. I didn't know if I was going to get that, but I was going to make the best out of whatever life I got. And I had just given up on having the life that I wanted, and I'm having the life that I want now. Not the life I expected, but definitely a life that I want now. And that feels really good.”