A momentarily startled Amanda Knox, a 21-year-old college student from Seattle, stepped into an Italian courtroom this morning for the first day of what could be a months-long murder trial in the medieval town of Perugia.
Knox has spent more than a year in an Italian prison without bail, accused, along with two men, of killing her roommate Meredith Kercher, 21.
Kercher, a British exchange student from the University of Leeds, was found half-naked with her throat slashed on Nov. 2, 2007, in her bedroom in the apartment she shared with Knox and two Italian women.
After the initial moment of trepidation entering the Perugia court, Knox, dressed in jeans and a gray sweat shirt, smiled widely and took a seat next to her lawyer, Luciano Ghirga. Afterward she appeared to be happily chatting with Ghirga and the prison guards.
Also taking the defendant's stand today in the 15th century Hall of the Frescoes is her former lover Raffaele Sollecito, 24, an Italian computer science graduate student. Sollecito, dressed in tan pants and a bright green sweater over a white turtleneck, entered the courtroom first.
Neither defendant was handcuffed, but police stood behind them. After the initial swearing in of the jurors, it was decided that the trial would be open to the public and journalists but that no cameras would be allowed in the courtroom.
The young couple is accused of murdering and sexually assaulting Kercher, in what prosecutors on the case have called a "perverse group sex game," which they reportedly played with a third person, Rudy Guede, 22, an Ivory Coast national who was raised in Perugia.
According to the prosecution's reconstruction, Kercher was on her knees, restrained by Sollecito, as Guede sexually assaulted her and Knox held a knife to her throat and stabbed her.
Ghirga said this morning that Knox will testify and plans to argue that Knox could not have committed the crime because she was not in the home the night Kercher died.
"The facts that we want to prove are that Knox had absolutely nothing to do with the crime, that she was not on the scene of the crime that evening. She was with Raffaele Sollecito at his house," Ghirga said in court this morning.
Today's proceedings ended with the judge deciding that Sollecito will also speak at some point during the trial, and then the hearing was adjourned until Friday, Feb. 6, when witnesses will begin testifying.
In the days before the start of the trial, Knox and Sollecito expressed confidence in the outcome.
Speaking to reporters through Ghirga, Knox said, "I am not afraid of the truth and I hope it will finally come out. I was Meredith's friend and I didn't kill her."
In court this morning, Knox and Sollecito made little eye contact. Knox appeared for the most part upbeat, while Sollecito was more reserved, looking tense during the proceedings.
The courtroom has cages sometimes used to hold prisoners on trial for violent crimes, but both Knox and Sollecito were allowed to sit with their lawyers. The cages were instead occupied by journalists on had to cover the trial.
On "Good Morning America" today, Knox's family voiced support for her and remained hopeful that she'd be released.
"She's glad it's finally getting under way," said her mother, Edda Mellas. "She's also nervous. They say horrible things about her and there's lots of press there, and she's in another country."
Mellas said the family believe that Knox is innocent and that the jury will eventually exonerate her.
The family have traveled back and forth to Italy to visit Knox while she's been jailed and said she remains in relatively good spirits.
"She seems to be holding up OK," said her father, Curt Knox. "When you have your freedom taken away from you for something you did not do, that's always very difficult."
Though her parents were not in Perugia for the beginning of the trial, they said another relative was in Italy with their daughter.
At a preliminary hearing last October, Perugia judge Paolo Micheli convicted Guede, who had requested a fast-track hearing, of Kercher's murder and sexual assault and sentenced him to 30 years in jail.
At the same time, he indicted Knox and Sollecito and denied their requests for house arrest. Micheli explained to reporters at the time that he felt there was "clear and logical evidence" that the three suspects were together at the scene of the crime, that more than one person was involved, and that the murder occurred in a "sexual context."
Micheli will not preside over the new trial.
Guede has always admitted to being at the scene of the crime. His bloody handprint was found on a pillow under the victim's body, but he insists he did not kill Kercher. His lawyers plan to appeal his conviction.
Knox and Sollecito have also steadfastly maintained their innocence. Both say they were together at Sollecito's house the night of the murder, though Sollecito says he cannot recall whether Knox was there all night, or not.
Knox first told police she was with Sollecito all night, but when pressured in an all-night interrogation she said she had a vision that she was in the house when Kercher was murdered, which led to her arrest. That was the only time during the investigation and since her subsequent arrest that Knox has said she was in the house when Kercher was killed. Later, Knox reverted to her original story.
Sollecito's lawyers believe and intend to argue that Kercher was killed by an intruder, while Knox's lawyers say simply that she was killed by a strong, robust male – not Amanda.
Prosecutors have previously presented evidence against Knox that includes a kitchen knife found in Sollecito's house that they say has Knox's DNA on the handle and Kercher's DNA on the blade. Knox's lawyers say the amount of DNA found is so small and such a wide match that it does not constitute good evidence. Blood stains with mixed DNA from Knox and Kercher were also found in the bathroom the two young women shared.
Sollecito's DNA was found on the victim's bra, but his lawyers say that the DNA belongs to more than one person and allege that the crime scene was contaminated during the investigation.
The jury at the trial is composed of six jurors, three men and three women between the ages of 35 and 57 chosen from a pool of 50 residents of Perugia, and two judges: Giancarlo Massei, the President of the Perugia Penal court, and Beatrice Cristiani. The six jury members will have the same influence and the same responsibility as the two professional judges in the trial.
Today's hearing will address the trial's technical issues: whether journalists and cameras should be allowed in court -- some 140 journalists, photographers and TV crew members from 86 media organizations have requested access -- whether to allow objections presented by the various sides, and approval of the list of witnesses
The defense and the prosecution have requested more than 100 witnesses -- close to 90 each for the two defendants, and 88 for the prosecution, though many are expected to overlap.
Witnesses for Knox include Mellas, who was divorced from Knox's father when the suspect was a small girl. Mellas is expected to testify about the phone calls she had with Knox the morning Kercher's body was found, and as a character witness for her daughter.
"She's just an amazing young woman. She is so strong, she really believes that because she's innocent it'll all work out," Mellas said on "GMA."
The family shared some stories of the time they've spent with Knox since she's been held in Perugia.
"We only get an hour with her, so she wants to know what's going on with our lives," said Knox's sister, Deanna. "We get to talk to her, hold her hand, hug her, love her… it's sad when she leaves, too."
Guede is on the list of prosecutors Giuliano Mignini and Manuela Comodi, but because Guede was a co-defendant he can choose not to answer questions.
Kercher's parents and siblings, who are civil plaintiffs in the trial, will also be witnesses. Their lawyers want them to tell the court what Meredith was like and describe what they have been through since she was killed.
The trial will proceed with two hearings a week, and is expected to last at least until this summer.