An American student was yesterday starting a 26-year jail term in Italy for her part in a brutal sex attack that killed her British housemate. Amanda Knox, 22, broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as a jury found her and her former boyfriend guilty of an assault two years ago that resulted in the half-naked body of Meredith Kercher being found with her throat slit in the villa apartment that the two students shared in the hillside town of Perugia in central Italy.
During the 11-month trial, the jury heard lurid accounts of drug-fuelled orgies in the medieval university town. Kercher's body was found in a pool of blood the day after the attack that her killers had tried to make look like a bungled burglary. According to prosecutors, Kercher, 21, a Leeds University student on an exchange at Perugia's University for Foreigners, had been the victim of a drug-induced sexual assault by Knox, her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 25, and Rudy Guede, 22, from the Ivory Coast.
Guede, a known drugs dealer, was found guilty at a fast-track trial last year and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the killing in November 2007. He is currently appealing that conviction. The trial heard that the two young women, though they shared the villa and worked at the same bar, did not get on. Kercher, a quiet, serious student originally from Surrey, did not approve of Knox's drug taking, party-going and multiplicity of sexual partners.
For her part, Knox regarded the Briton as being "smug" and something of an uptight snob, according to prosecutors. The defence attempted throughout the trial to portray "Foxy Knoxy", as she was dubbed by the tabloid press, as a fun-loving, all-American girl, while prosecutors described her as a manipulative hedonist and a "talented and calculated liar". More than 100 witnesses gave evidence to the trial in the frescoed courtroom. Knox, from Seattle, told the jury of eight - which included two judges - that at the time of the killing she was at Sollecito's house, where the two watched a video and slept together.
Sollecito chose not to testify, though, like Knox, he denied all the charges the pair faced: murder, sexual assault and theft. He, too, was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years. The couple were also ordered to pay millions of dollars in compensation to Kercher's parents and her siblings. On Thursday, Knox had made an emotional appeal to the jury, saying that she felt vulnerable and feared "losing herself" after two years in prison awaiting trial.
Speaking in Italian, she said: "I am scared of being branded what I am not. I am scared of having the mask of an assassin forced on to me." The prosecution maintained that Sollecito and Guede had gone to the villa where the students lived on the night of the murder, probably to do a drugs deal. Kercher and Knox had started arguing, the prosecution claimed, and the row had escalated under "the fumes of drugs and possibly alcohol", culminating with all three launching a sordid sexual assault on the Briton.
It ended after one of them tried to throttle her before her throat was slit with a knife. "Meredith died because after she was attacked, threatened, wounded, and after a violent sexual approach - they needed her to remain silent," according to Francesco Maresca, a lawyer representing Kercher's family. Police were suspicious of Knox from the start. She initially gave conflicting accounts of where she was at the time of the murder and tried to blame the killing on a Congolese bar owner.
Her odd behaviour also aroused suspicions: she was reported to have performed a cartwheel and done the splits while waiting to be questioned by police. But defence lawyers described the prosecution case as pure speculation and claimed that DNA evidence presented to the court came from such minute traces as to be worthless. They also said that it might have been contaminated. Prosecutors maintained that a 16.5-centimetre knife, which was found at Sollecito's house and which was found to bear Kercher's DNA on the blade and Knox's on the handle, could have been the murder weapon.
However, the defence argued that the knife was too large to match Kercher's wounds. But, after 13 hours' deliberation, the jury accepted the prosecution's version of events and returned their guilty verdicts. Kercher's brother, Kyle, said at a press conference in Perugia yesterday: "Ultimately, we are pleased with the decision pleased that we've got a decision, but it's not a time for celebration."
His mother, Arline, added that, on the basis of the evidence, she believed the jury had reached the right decision. "It's difficult to say but, at the end of the day, you have to go on the evidence because there's nothing else," she said. On the other hand, Knox's father, Curt, told reporters that he could not understand how his daughter could have been convicted. He said his reaction to the verdicts was "anger ... just disbelief on how a judicial system could even come up with a verdict like this. It's beyond me".
Although the trial is over, the legal process surrounding the case still has a considerable distance to run. Lawyers for Knox's family, who have already spent more than US$1 million (3.67m) trying to prove the student's innocence, said yesterday that they would appeal the conviction, which, under Italian law, could be the first of two, lengthy re-examinations of the case. In addition, Guede's appeal against conviction has yet to be heard.
A defamation case brought by Patrick Diya Lumumba, the Congolese owner of the bar whom Knox accused of being the killer, was held in parallel with the murder trial. The court found in Mr Lumumba's favour and ordered Knox to pay him 40,000 euros (Dh218,000) compensation. firstname.lastname@example.org