PERUGIA // The American Amanda Knox was acquitted of murder and sexual assault by an Italian appeal court yesterday after four years in custody over the killing of her British housemate Meredith Kercher.
The dramatic ruling overturns a 26-year sentence handed down to Ms Knox in the original trial in which she had been found guilty of murdering Kercher together with her then boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and local drifter Rudy Guede.
Earlier yesterday, Ms Knox tearfully told an Italian appeals court she did not kill her roommate, pleading for the court to free her after four years behind bars.
Knox frequently paused for breath and fought back tears as she spoke in Italian to the eight members of the jury in a packed courtroom, but managed to maintain her composure during the 10-minute address.
"I've lost a friend in the worst, most brutal, most inexplicable way possible," she said of the 2007 murder of Kercher, a 21-year-old Briton who shared an apartment with Knox when they were students in Perugia. "I'm paying with my life for things that I didn't do."
Knox and co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito, Knox's former boyfriend from Italy, were convicted in 2009 of sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher, who was stabbed to death in her bedroom. Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison, Sollecito to 25. They both deny wrongdoing.
"I never hurt anyone, never in my life," Sollecito said in his own speech to the jury.
Kercher's mother, sister and a brother have expressed worry over the possibility of acquittal.
"The lower court found the defendants guilty. The Kercher family's interest is to have the verdict confirmed," the Kercher family lawyer, Francesco Maresca, said.
The trial has captivated audiences worldwide. Knox, the 24-year-old American, and Sollecito, a soft-spoken Italian, were convicted of murdering Kercher in what the lower court said had begun as a drug-fuelled sexual assault.
Knox insisted yesterday that she had nothing to do with the murder and that Kercher was a friend who was always nice to her. Gesticulating, at times clasping her hands together, the American said she had always wanted justice for Kercher.
"She had her bedroom next to mine, she was killed in our own apartment. If I had been there that night, I would be dead," Knox said. "But I was not there. I did not kill. I did not rape. I did not steal. I wasn't there."
Also convicted in separate proceedings was Rudy Hermann Guede, a small-time drug dealer and drifter who spent most of his life in Italy after arriving from his native Ivory Coast. Guede was convicted in a separate fast-track procedure and saw his sentence cut to 16 years in his final appeal.
Knox said she had nothing more than a passing acquaintance with Guede, who played basketball in a court near the house, and didn't even know his name. Sollecito, who addressed the court before Knox, told jurors that he did not know Guede at all.
Knox and her family, present in Perugia, hope she will be set free after spending four years behind bars caught up in what they say is a monumental judicial mistake. Prosecutors, who have depicted Knox as a manipulative liar, are seeking to increase her sentence to life in prison.
The jury is made up of the presiding judge, a side judge and six jurors, five of them women, and they have several options. They can acquit both defendants and set them free. They can uphold the conviction, then confirm the sentence, reduce it or increase it. They can theoretically decide to split the fate of Knox and Sollecito, convicting one and acquitting the other.
Over the course of the appeals trial, the defendants' positions have significantly improved, mainly because a court-ordered independent review cast serious doubts over the main DNA evidence linking the two to the crime.
Prosecutors maintain that Knox's DNA was found on the handle of a kitchen knife believed to be the murder weapon, and that Kercher's DNA was found on the blade. They said Sollecito's DNA was on the clasp of Kercher's bra as part of a mix of evidence that also included the victim's genetic profile.
But the independent review, ordered at the request of the defence, which had always disputed those findings, reached a different conclusion. The two experts found that police conducting the investigation had made glaring errors in evidence-collecting and that below-standard testing and possible contamination raised doubts over the attribution of DNA traces, both on the blade and on the bra clasp, which was collected from the crime scene 46 days after the murder.