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 ingenue.
For four years, that contrast hovered over the fate of Amanda Knox, a 24-year-old exchange student in Italy from the University of Washington, 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 Knox 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.
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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,” Deanna 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 and wanted to see them upheld. Instead, the Kerchers are now left with grave questions about the police’s handling of the investigation.