(Updates with flight home in fourth paragraph, State Department statement in 13th.)
Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Amanda Knox was set to return to the U.S. today after an Italian appeals court acquitted the 24-year- old American of the 2007 murder of her British housemate, Meredith Kercher.
Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellman ruled that the Seattle native be freed immediately after a jury in Perugia, Italy, found Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, innocent in the killing of Kercher. The ruling overturned murder convictions for the pair in 2009. The prosecution may still appeal to Italy’s highest court.
After the ruling was read out in Perugia’s 14th-century courthouse, Knox broke into tears and hugged her lawyer while cheering family members embraced behind her. Crowds gathered outside the courthouse shouted “shame, shame” after the announcement.
In a final statement yesterday, Knox, a former exchange student in the city, had declared her innocence and said, “I want to go home.” Knox was due to fly to the U.S. on a flight departing Rome this morning, la Repubblica newspaper said on its website.
“Amanda’s nightmare is over,” her sister, Deanna Knox, said in a statement to reporters after the ruling. “She has suffered for four years for a crime she didn’t commit” and “we are thankful to this court for having the courage to overturn this conviction.”
Knox and Sollecito, 27, were convicted of the killing in December 2009 and sentenced to 26 years and 25 years in prison respectively. Both were jailed shortly after the crime and denied bail.
Rudy Guede, an Ivorian-born Italian citizen, was also found guilty of the murder in a separate “fast-track” trial in 2008 and sentenced to 30 years. Guede, 24, had his sentence reduced to 16 years in a 2009 appeal.
“I felt there would be an acquittal because there was no proof,” said Claudio Maccheroni, 34, a mechanic in Perugia. “But it’s too hard to imagine that Guede did everything by himself.”
Kercher, a 21-year-old student, was found dead in her bedroom, half-naked and strangled with her throat slashed, on Nov. 2, 2007, at the house she shared with Knox and two other women. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini said at the original trial that Knox had masterminded a drug-fueled sex game involving Sollecito and Guede that turned violent, leading to the murder.
‘Paying With My Life’
“The perversion, the violence and the disrespect for life and for people, that’s not me, I didn’t do the things they said I did,” Knox said in her statement yesterday, speaking in Italian. “I didn’t kill, I didn’t rape, I didn’t rob, I wasn’t there.” Knox said she had been “paying with my life for things I didn’t do.”
More than a dozen of Knox’s friends and family members packed a hotel suite in downtown Seattle to watch the verdict. The supporters clapped, cheered and embraced after the verdict was read. Neumos, a Seattle bar, offered a 50 percent-off happy hour to celebrate the ruling.
“I’m delighted, elated, relieved, very, very happy,” said family friend Karen Pruett, 55.
The State Department also weighed in, saying the U.S. “appreciates the careful consideration of this matter within the Italian judicial system,” according to a statement by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The original trial garnered global media attention and divided opinion along national lines, with U.S. newspapers including the New York Times arguing for acquittal and U.K. dailies portraying Knox as a seductive temptress with a violent streak. Italian newspapers covered everything from love letters Knox received from supporters to the outfits she wore in court.
The appeals trial also saw a wave of foreign media descend on Perugia, a town of 170,000 in central Italy, including local television stations from Knox’s hometown of Seattle. More than 400 journalists were accredited to cover the trial, a court official said, and many were forced to stand during the proceedings in the packed courtroom. The verdict was broadcast live by television networks around the world.
In arguments to the appeals court, Sollecito’s attorney Giulia Bongiorno, a member of the Italian parliament, compared Knox to Jessica Rabbit, saying the American had been unfairly portrayed in the media as a savvy, sex-obsessed manipulator. Like the cartoon-film character, Knox “isn’t bad, she’s just drawn that way,” Bongiorno said.
The Kercher family was perplexed by the verdict, Sky News reported, citing a statement. The family is due to give a press conference in Perugia at 10 a.m.
“Meredith has been completely forgotten in all of this,” Stephanie Kercher, Meredith’s sister, said at a press conference yesterday before the verdict. “It’s nearly four years now and the focus has shifted for obvious reasons onto the proceedings in the court at the moment. It’s very difficult to try keep her memory alive in all of this.”
During the appeals trial, court-commissioned experts cast doubt on techniques police used to collect DNA evidence linking the two to the murder. A former cellmate of Guede also testified that he said Knox and Sollecito had nothing to do with the crime, Italian newspapers reported.
Prosecutor Manuela Comodi in a Sept. 24 closing statement denied that the experts’ findings had weakened the case and argued that Knox and Sollecito’s sentences should be extended to life terms.
Knox was convicted after first telling police she was at the villa at the time of the killing and she heard screaming from Kercher’s room. Knox also initially named the owner of a bar where she had worked as the possible killer. The man, Patrick Diya Lumumba, was arrested and later released after a witness confirmed his alibi. A lawyer for Lumumba told the court Sept. 26 that Knox was a “she-devil.” Lumumba sued her for damages. The appeals court yesterday upheld her three-year conviction for slandering Lumumba, which she has already served.
Knox later altered her story. Her lawyer said her original account had been coerced by the police.
“If I had been there that night, I would be dead like her,” Knox told the court yesterday. “Only I wasn’t there, I was at Raffaele’s.”
--With assistance from Jeffrey Donovan in Rome, Dina Bass and Britton Staniar in Seattle. Editors: Andrew Davis, Marco Bertacche
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