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There is something about pretty white girls, bloody knives and the slightest whiff of sex that gets the international news machine humming like nothing else. All three factors merged explosively Monday in a crowded appeals court in Perugia, Italy. There, before several hundred journalists and other spectators, American college student Amanda Knox, 24, was cleared of murdering her study-abroad roommate, Meredith Kercher, in a sexually-motivated crime four years ago. Already, feature film rights to Knox’s story are flying, and book publishers, too, are salivating.Until recently, the prevailing explanation for “Foxy Knoxy’s” guilt had been a surreal one. A game of rough sex went terribly wrong that evening in 2007, alleged Italian prosecutors. The young American student, her boyfriend and a local immigrant man were behind the perverse ordeal – or so echoed tabloids and reputable papers on both sides of the Atlantic – ending up in Kercher’s bloody death.

This orgy-centered narrative was bandied about by lawyers in the Italian courtroom, as were terms like “she-devil” and “witch.” But was any of it true? After four years of Knox’s incarceration based on an increasingly shaky set of extracted confessions and problematic forensic evidence, prosecutors’ made-for-late-night version of the crime has finally been snuffed this week. Knox, now officially freed, is heading home to Seattle.All this has left the press to ask, somewhat sheepishly: were mainstream theories about Knox’s guilt driven primarily, as Slate.com’s Katie Crouch argued last month, by our collective lust for a kinky tale?

This hypothesis, it turns out, does have some historical weight behind it. Since the advent of the penny press nearly two centuries ago, American journalists have done some of their briskest business when selling tales of unlikely female perpetrators – the more frail and photogenic, the better. With each successive decade, the “girl killer” genre of true crime reporting has hewed more and more closely to the fading industry model of d-list porn films: a sloppy mash-up of stock characters (the femme fatale, the lesbian psycho-slasher, etc.) prone either to overly-hasty climaxes, or, inversely, to long, drawn-out sagas that test the stamina of even the most dedicated voyeurs.Here, briefly, are four women in American history whose sensational murder and assault trials became, much like Knox’s, vehicles for serving our most base collective appetites, sometimes spawning whole industries unto themselves and often reflecting larger cultural battles.