An Italian court overturned the homicide convictions of American Amanda Knox and her Italian co-defendant Monday and ordered them freed...

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PERUGIA, Italy — An Italian court overturned the homicide convictions of American Amanda Knox and her Italian co-defendant Monday and ordered them freed after nearly four years in prison, ending a sensationally lurid trial of murder and rough sex that had made the Seattle woman notorious on both sides of the Atlantic.

An appellate court of six Italian citizens and two judges delivered its verdict after more than 11 hours of deliberations. Knox and her supporters packing the court let out whoops of joy and relief as the verdict was read on live television, prompting court officials to shout for silence. Knox broke down in tears.

The decision overturns the December 2009 convictions that resulted in a 26-year prison sentence for Knox and 25 years for her co-defendant, former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, for the 2007 stabbing murder of 21-year-old Meredith Kercher, a Briton who shared an apartment with Knox. The case was built largely on DNA evidence that legal experts called flimsy and suspect.

Knox, 24, was returned to prison to collect her possessions and left shortly after. Sollecito also was freed.

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Carlo Dalla Vedova, one of Knox’s lawyers, said she would spend the night with her family and could leave Italy as early as Tuesday.

The acquittals can be appealed to the Italian Supreme Court, and prosecutors indicated they would appeal.

All three figures in the trial were young, promising students in the picturesque central Italian city of Perugia, a fact that largely ignited the media hype that surrounded the case from the start. The unprecedented international attention in a murder trial in Italy was fueled by looming question marks over means and motive that made the case a classic whodunit.

“We’re thankful Amanda’s nightmare is over,” Knox’s sister, Deanna, read in a statement after the verdict. “We’re grateful for the support we have received from all over the world.”

A lawyer for Sollecito, Giulia Bongiorno, said “we’ve been waiting for this for four years.”

Earlier in the day, Knox read a tearful statement in fluent Italian, beseeching the court to overturn the verdict and claiming her innocence.

“I did not kill, I did not rape, I did not steal. I was not there,” she said. “I want to go back home. I want to go back to my life. I don’t want to be punished. I don’t want my life and my future to be taken away for something I didn’t do.”

The elation at the acquittal extended to Knox’s circle of friends and supporters in Seattle.

“There was no way she did this,” said John Lange, Knox’s theater teacher at Seattle Preparatory, a Jesuit high school. “She never did anything to hurt anyone. She was not conniving. She was not mean-spirited.”

The joyful reaction of the defendants and their families and friends contrasted sharply with the looks of ashen disappointment by relatives of Kercher.

The British media had sympathized openly with the tragic figure of Kercher and her family, which backed the prosecution in seeking to uphold the original trial’s outcome.

“The lower court found the defendants guilty,” family lawyer Francesco Maresca said at a news conference earlier Monday, as deliberations were under way. He said the Kercher family wanted to “have the verdict confirmed.”

Hundreds of people had massed outside the courtroom before the verdict was read. Many cheered as the acquittal news filtered out to the crowd, but some shouted “shame!” in apparent sympathy with the murder victim’s family.

The trial and retrial of Knox attracted widespread attention partly because of its sensational details and the starkly differing portraits of the main defendant, who was alternately described as a hardworking college student caught up in an arcane foreign justice system and a marijuana-smoking criminal.

Kercher was found stabbed in her room on Nov. 2, 2007, in what prosecutors described as a game of rough sex involving Knox and her boyfriend that went horribly wrong. Knox and Sollecito were arrested days later.

Throughout the original trial and the appeal, prosecutors tried to paint Knox as a calculating femme fatale, a “she-devil” capable of murderous acts despite her sweet courtroom appearance and demeanor.

The appeal, which began last November, was dominated by the re-examination of the DNA evidence. The validity of the main forensic evidence, microscopic amounts of DNA on the murder weapon and on a bra clasp, was thrown into doubt this summer by a report from independent experts who criticized the police’s handling and analysis of the materials.

Court-appointed independent experts said the DNA had been collected in a way that could have allowed for contamination and that the genetic information on two main pieces of evidence could not be matched to the defendants with certainty. Bongiorno argued the evidence collected 46 days after police first went through the scene should have been thrown out.

In their closing arguments, prosecutors dismissed the findings of the independent experts, calling them inept and inexperienced. They also reiterated other evidence from the first trial, including eyewitness evidence placing Knox and Sollecito at the scene.

The appeals court upheld Knox’s conviction on a charge of slander for accusing a bar owner, Diya “Patrick” Lumumba, of committing the murder. The court set the sentence for that conviction at three years — meaning time served — and a fine of 22,000 euros, or about $29,000.

A third defendant, Rudy Guede, 24, also was convicted of Kercher’s murder in a separate trial and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal, but his sentence was shortened to 16 years.

The verdict is unlikely to quash the hard feelings the case stirred up regarding the role of the media, both local and international, which have been accused of excessive — and often biased — coverage of the case.

The Italian justice system also has come under close scrutiny, and there is likely to be discussion of the pitfalls of a legal system that seems to have wrongly kept two young people in prison for four years.

Many U.S. news-media outlets, which were largely sympathetic to the Knox family in their coverage, frequently portrayed the young American as having been caught up in what was sometimes described as a medieval or barbaric legal system.

Italian legal experts dismissed such accusations.

The Knox case, if anything, exemplified the guarantees implicit in the judicial system, “because the appeals process evaluates both procedural questions and can reopen the investigative phase, which is what happened here,” said Maurizio Bellacosa, a defense lawyer and professor of penal law at the Luiss University in Rome. “It is a guarantee for defendants.”

Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor who led the murder investigation, said he would appeal the sentence to Italy’s highest court. The judge will have 90 days to write a report on the court’s conclusions, and parties then have 45 days to file an appeal. The court usually takes a year to hear a case.

Should they decide to overturn the acquittal, Knox would be tried — even in absentia — in a second appeals court, and the case would return to the court of cassation if that court upheld the conviction.

Only when a final conviction was reached could Italy start extradition procedures against her.

Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told CNN: “Questions regarding Italian law and process are not ones we can answer. They need to be addressed to Italian authorities.

“The United States and Italy do have a bilateral extradition treaty, which has been in force since 1984. Questions about possible return to the U.S., extradition request, etc. are too speculative for us to be able to comment.”

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