Shouts of "Assassina Americana!" rang across the cobbled streets in the historic center of Perugia on Friday night, as journalists and citizens jostled to watch a midnight court session that completed the controversial murder trial of American college student Amanda Knox. Along with her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Knox was accused of the Nov. 1, 2007, killing of her British roommate Meredith Kercher who, like Knox, was spending a year studying abroad.
With her family standing behind her, a shaking and tearful Knox, 22, watched the three men and three women of the jury and two judges file in after 12 hours of deliberation, their faces unreadable, as they had been throughout most of the 11-month trial. As the judge read the guilty verdict, Sollecito's stepmother began to sob loudly and then shouted "Va fancula," "F___ you" in Italian. That alarm, rather than the judge's actual words, first indicated Knox's fate to her family, because none of them speak Italian.
The jury sentenced Knox to 26 years and Sollecito to 25 years, less than a life sentence and with a period of isolation the prosecutor had requested; Knox may have received the extra year for the added conviction of slander for having initially accused a local bar owner of the murder. As she was led back to prison, Knox's wails could be heard through the brick walls of the medieval court building. Sollecito, who throughout the trial had been more emotional than Knox, went pale but did not react.
Eleven hours later, the Kercher family held a press conference in Perugia to thank the Italian prosecutors and police. Like the Knoxes, the Kerchers don't speak Italian, and an interpreter from the British consulate helped them respond to Italian reporters.
"I think the best way to say it is, we are very satisfied with the verdict," said John Kercher Jr., seated between his parents and Meredith's other surviving siblings Lyle and Stephanie. "Ultimately, we are pleased with the decision, but it's not time for celebration. We are gathered here because our sister was brutally murdered, taken away from us."
In recent days, defense lawyers had aggressively attacked both the validity of the material evidence in the case and the prosecution's lively theory of a "sex game gone wrong," but the Kercher family expressed no doubts. "I would say if the evidence has been presented, then you have to agree with that," said Arline Kercher, Meredith's mother. "At the end of the day, you have to go on the evidence. There is nothing else."
Knox's family and other supporters, however, say the evidence against her didn't amount to much. The theory that Knox hated Kercher and motivated two male admirers, Sollecito and Rudy Guede (already convicted in a separate trial of the murder), to restrain and sexually assault Kercher, while Knox drove a knife into her neck, was largely circumstantial. Guede's footprints and handprints were on the bloody scene and his DNA inside the sexually assaulted victim, but almost no similarly incriminating evidence linked the two students to the crime scene.
The most serious material evidence against Knox and Sollecito came down to two elements: a microscopic speck of Sollecito's DNA on a bra clasp that was apparently torn off Kercher's back during the savage attack and another microscopic speck of biological substance compatible with Kercher on a kitchen knife picked by police at random from Sollecito's drawers after his arrest, with Knox's DNA on the handle. Prosecutors say the two college students walked the knife back to Sollecito's house after spending a sleepless night at the crime scene scrubbing away their tracks. Defense lawyers presented experts who said the amounts of biological material were too small to be verified, and could have been the result of contamination either at the crime scene or in the lab.
Key elements such as motive and even timing shifted during the trial. During closing arguments, prosecutors changed the estimated time of death, pushing it two hours later in order to better match the account of a homeless man who came forward months after the arrests and claimed to have seen Sollecito and Knox hovering near the house where Kercher was stabbed to death on the night after Halloween 2007. Knox lived in the house, while Sollecito's apartment was a five-minute walk away. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, in rebuttal arguments, reminded the judges and jurors that if they decided to acquit the two students, they would be reversing opinions by more than 10 preliminary judges and magistrates who had accepted his theory during the investigation.
Many legal observers in the U.S. were dismayed, though not surprised, by the verdict, since they felt all along that Knox had already been convicted in the Italian court of public opinion and had no real shot at a fair trial. Within hours of her arrest, reporters had scoured her MySpace postings. They found her nickname "Foxy Knoxy" and ferreted out drunken videos, publishing them all. A local shopkeeper presented the prosecution with a store video of Sollecito and Knox buying lingerie and making out a few days after the murder.
But Italian journalists who had for two years avidly purveyed press leaks accompanied by a shifting body of evidence revealed piecemeal as bits of it were knocked down expressed surprise at the verdict. "This is like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands," said veteran La Repubblica writer Meo Ponte, who told TIME the jurists lacked the courage to refuse a theory already approved by so many officials. Ponte noted that the sentence for Knox whom Mignini had painted as the instigator and actual killer was four years less than the 30 years meted out to Guede (who is appealing the verdict). That strongly suggests the jury didn't buy Mignini's theory, leaving open the question: For what act did they really convict Knox?
Defense lawyers contended that Guede, a native of the Ivory Coast, committed the crime by himself. He had been arrested in Milan a week before the murder, after having broken into a nursery school, carrying a knife and items stolen from a Perugia law office a week before. Guede fled to Germany after the murder. When he was apprehended, he did not initially implicate Knox. He said he was in the house on a kind of date with Kercher, went to the bathroom and came out to find her bleeding to death from stab wounds. He later changed his story to suggest that Knox had been in or around the house and that she and Kercher had argued over money.
Still, Knox's attorneys were never able to erase the fact that during a night of questioning four days after the killing, she told police she had "a vision" that she was sitting in the kitchen on the night of the murder, holding her hands over her ears, while her boss, a local bar owner, raped and killed Kercher. She later said she'd been pressured by police to finger the man because she had texted him "See you later" in the hours before the murder which the Italians took for a confirmed appointment.
Knox has since said she spent the entire night at Sollecito's, smoking pot and having sex, though Sollecito told police he was not certain she had spent the whole night in his house. She said she woke up the next morning, went home to take a shower and noticed the house door open and blood in the bathroom but was not unduly alarmed. After having breakfast with her boyfriend, she claimed, the two returned to the house and noticed a room with a broken window and that Kercher's bedroom door was locked. They called police, but authorities said they did so only after another branch of the Italian police arrived at the house. Police found Kercher's half-naked body under a blanket behind her locked door, a blood-splattered English-Italian dictionary nearby.
Lawyers for Knox and Sollecito said they plan to appeal after the judge (who under Italian law was also a voting member of the jury) files the legally required report explaining the verdict in three months. The appeals process can take up to six years.
There are signs that the Knox case could soon become a diplomatic dispute. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, Knox's home state, called on the U.S. State Department to investigate. "I am saddened by the verdict, and I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial. The prosecution did not present enough evidence for an impartial jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Knox was guilty." The U.S. embassy in Italy had sent observers to the trial to watch Mignini's final arguments but did not make any official comment. Although Knox was visited by U.S. embassy officials during her incarceration, the U.S. was not officially involved.
After the verdict, Knox's father Curt silently steered his two younger daughters, crying, through a scrum of television cameras, curious bystanders and inebriated college students. A family member said some of them plan to relocate from Seattle to Italy to live near Knox in prison. She is likely to be moved from incarceration near Perugia, where she has resided the past two years, into a long-term prison. With reporting by Pieter Vanhove / Perugia
Burleigh is writing a book on the Knox case, to be published by Broadway Books in 2011.