PERUGIA, Italy — In a stunning reversal, Amanda Knox was cleared Monday of a conviction of sexually assaulting and brutally slaying her British roommate and immediately left prison to return to the United States and pick up a life interrupted by four years behind bars in Italy.
The 24-year-old Knox dissolved into tears as the verdict was read in a packed courtroom, and needed to be propped up by her lawyers on either side. Just 11 hours earlier, she had tearfully but resolutely pleaded for her life, asserting that she had nothing to do with Meredith Kercher’s violent death.
In a quick turnaround, Knox was in a dark limousine headed toward Rome, where she was expected to board a commercial flight for home on Tuesday. Her one-time boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito also saw his conviction overturned and set free to return to his home in southern Italy.
The prosecution’s case was blown apart by a court-ordered DNA review that discredited crucial genetic evidence used to convict the two in 2009. Knox and Sollecito were sentenced to 26 and 25 years respectively.
While waves of relief swept through the defendants’ benches in the courtroom, members of the Kercher family, who flew in for the verdict, appeared dazed and perplexed. Meredith’s older sister Stephanie shed a quiet tear, her mother, Arline, looked straight ahead.
“We respect the decision of the judges but we do not understand how the decision of the first trial could be so radically overturned,” the Kerchers said in a statement. “We still trust the Italian justice system and hope that the truth will eventually emerge.”
The Kerchers had pressed for the court to uphold the guilty verdicts passed two years ago, and resisted theories that a third man convicted in the case, Rudy Hermann Guede, had acted alone in killing the 21-year-old student. Guede, convicted in a separate trial, is serving a 16-year sentence.
The verdict reverberated through the streets of this medieval hilltop town, where both Knox and Kercher had arrived with so much anticipation for overseas studies programs four years ago.
Hundreds of mostly university-age youths gathered in the piazza outside the courtroom jeered as news of the acquittals spread. “Shame, shame,” they yelled, adding that a black man had been made to shoulder all of the guilt for the murder.
Knox was pale, clearly terrified and almost looked out of breath as she arrived for the verdict shortly after 9:30 p.m.
Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann read out the verdict of the eight-member jury in a frescoed subterranean courtroom packed with reporters. In five minutes, Knox’s fate was reversed.
“The appeals Court of Perugia … orders the immediate release of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito,” Hellmann said.
Slander charge upheld
The jury upheld Knox’s conviction on a charge of slander for accusing bar owner Diya “Patrick” Lumumba of carrying out the killing. But it set the sentence at three years, meaning for time served. Knox has been in prison since Nov. 6, 2007, five days after the murder.
Relief washed over Amanda, as she dropped her head in sobs.
“Amanda had a crying fit, she broke down,” said Maria Del Grosso, a lawyer on her team who has been close to her throughout the case and held Knox moments after the verdict was read. “We couldn’t make her stop crying.”
“She was a nervous wreck when she came in,” she added.
Prosecutors said they would appeal to the nation’s highest criminal court, after reading the court’s reasoning due out within 90 days.
“Tonight’s sentence is wrong and confounding,” prosecutor Giuliano Mignini told the ANSA news agency. “There is a heavy conviction for slander. Why did she accuse him? We don’t know.”
“The Court of Cassation will establish who is right” between the lower court and the appeals court, he added. Mignini said there was “unprecedented media pressure,” revisiting a theme he had touched on during his closing arguments.
Knox’s family has attended hearings in Perugia and kept a high profile in the media, in stark contrast with the Kercher family, who rarely showed up over the course of the four-year case and only arrived in Perugia on Monday with deliberations already under way.
The prosecutors’ appeal to the Court of Cassation is not expected to be filed until after the court releases its reasoning for Monday’ acquittals.
In the meantime, nothing in Italian law would prevent Knox from returning home to Seattle. An Italian lawmaker who has championed her case, Rocco Girlanda, said she was due to fly out Tuesday from Rome.
“We’re thankful that Amanda’s nightmare is over,” her little sister, Deanna Knox, told reporters and throngs of onlookers outside the courthouse after the verdict. “She suffered for four years for a crime she did not commit.”