LONDON – The case was a media sensation from the start, with allegations of drug-fueled group sex and a principal suspect whose cherubic face proved to be an irresistible canvas to a world that saw in it images ranging from scheming vamp to innocent ingénue.
For four years, that contrast hovered over the fate of Amanda Knox, a 24-year-old American exchange student in Italy, trapped in a foreign legal system and behind bars for the murder of her British roommate. Was she a killer, capable of murdering Meredith Kercher in the pursuit of sexual pleasure? Or was she the helpless victim of a prosecutor’s character assassination and a botched police investigation?
On Monday, an appeals jury in the central Italian town of Perugia sided with the latter portrait. It overturned Knox’s conviction for the 2007 murder of Kercher, a British student with whom she shared an apartment. Knox’s alleged accomplice, former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, 27, was also exonerated by the appellate panel.
The stunning turnaround hinged on an independent review of DNA evidence that authorities said tied Knox and Sollecito to the crime. Kercher, 21, was found dead in her room, her throat slashed and her body bearing more than 40 wounds and signs of sexual assault. The DNA review found that the evidence was severely compromised by sloppy police collection methods and subpar forensic testing, a devastating conclusion that prosecutors could not successfully counter.
Two hours after the verdict was read out and beamed around the world, Knox was set free, no more to return to the cell where she has spent most of her adult life. She and Sollecito had more than 20 years left to serve under sentences handed down upon their conviction in 2009.
But the acquittals are unlikely to quell public debate, especially among Italians who feel that their judicial system has been smeared by the American media and others who accuse the authorities in Perugia of railroading Knox in a staggering miscarriage of justice.
Prosecutors have pledged to appeal the case before Italy’s Supreme Court, although that body tends to rule on technical points of law rather than on the matters of evidence and character that were presented during the appeals trial.
“We’re thankful that Amanda’s nightmare is over,” her sister Deanna told reporters outside the courtroom, where crowds on either side of the case shouted “Victory, victory” and “Shame, shame.” “We are thankful to the court for having the courage to look for the truth and to overturn the conviction,” she said.
Kercher’s family said they respected the verdict but did “not understand how the decision of the first trial could be so radically overturned. We still trust the Italian judicial system and hope that the truth will eventually emerge.”
They had previously declared themselves satisfied with the convictions from the original trial and wanted to see them upheld. Instead, the Kerchers are now left with grave questions about the police’s handling of the investigation.
Only one person remains in prison in connection with Kercher’s death: Rudy Hermann Guede, a small-time drug dealer and drifter. Guede’s DNA was found at the scene, leading to his conviction and sentence of 16 years in prison, but he maintains his innocence and has said Knox and Sollecito are the killers.
Sollecito and Knox have insisted that they spent the evening in question watching a movie at Sollecito’s house, smoking pot and having sex, and were nowhere near the apartment Knox and Kercher shared.
“If I had been there as well, I would have been dead as well as Meredith,” Knox said in a tearful final plea to the jury Monday morning, before the panel retired to deliberate.
Prosecutors alleged that she and Sollecito, who had been dating for less than a week, killed Kercher in a sex game gone horribly wrong. Authorities said Knox’s DNA was present on a knife believed to be the murder weapon and that Sollecito’s DNA was found on the clasp of a bra belonging to Kercher.
But the case against them began to crumble during the appeals trial when an independent review commissioned by the defense cast major doubt on the DNA evidence’s reliability. Police detectives had failed to change their gloves when picking up different items in the apartment, making contamination of samples likely, and the bra was not taken away for testing until 46 days after the slaying.
Prosecutors said they stood by the DNA tests. But in overturning the convictions, the jury described the evidence in the case as not credible.
The panel did uphold a conviction against Knox of slander, for her false accusation that a Congolese barman, Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, killed Kercher. But the three-year prison sentence for that conviction has already been fulfilled by the time she has spent in jail.
Knox’s family was hopeful enough of her release that they had reportedly booked a flight for her back to Seattle even before the verdict was announced. Rumors have also circulated that Knox spent part of her time in prison writing a memoir.
During her dramatic plea Monday morning, Knox was by turns emphatic and too overcome by emotion to speak. She accused the Italian police of betraying the “absolute faith” she had placed in them.
“I was manipulated. I’m not what they say. The perversion, the violence, the disrespect for life and for people – they don’t belong to me and I haven’t done the things they suggest I did,” Knox said in Italian, a language she barely knew when she first moved to Perugia four years ago. “I haven’t killed, I haven’t raped, I haven’t robbed. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t present at this crime.”