As you approach the medieval city of Perugia, the roads narrow and start to wind their way in easy switchbacks up the hills. The ancient walls of the Umbrian capital appear on the side of the road, and you keep climbing until you reach the picturesque town, with stunning views of the landscape.
Perugia was once a capital of commerce, and medieval art and culture, but after it was eclipsed by the dual forces of Rome and Florence, the road bypassed Perugia, and the city eventually became famous for two things: chocolate and university students.
There's little question nowadays that the chocolates are viewed more favorably here than the tens of thousands of students who jam the main pedestrian street at night to socialize, drink and smoke pot openly. Many in Perugia view the students as a necessary annoyance, fueling the local economy but keeping the citizens awake with their late-night revelry.
One of those students who stepped, full of hope and anticipation, into this lovely city was a 20-year-old Seattle student named Amanda Knox. She arrived in Perugia in the late summer of 2008, ready to soak in a new culture and perfect her Italian. Her younger sister, Deanna, described her as "very book smart," adding, "She can learn things very quickly like language … but not so street smart."
For the past five months, just off Perugia's main street, in a modest-looking building adorned with the ancient symbol of Perugia, the griffon, down several sets of stairs, in a large 15th-century room with a crucifix hanging on the wall, Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 25, have been on trial for murder.
Prosecutors say the two students sexually assaulted and took part in the gruesome murder of Knox's British roommate, 21-year-old Meredith Kercher. If convicted, they face life in prison.
Each session, Knox and Sollecito are led into the courtroom, as the jurors sit beside the judges, wearing sashes in the tricolors of the Italian flag. They have been chosen randomly, not preinterviewed by the defense or the prosecution, and permitted to read or watch whatever they please.
The prosecution recently rested, after five months of presenting evidence and witnesses to the six jurors and two judges who together will decide the defendants' fate. The defense has begun its case, with a big gamble, and its star witness, Amanda Knox, on the stand. The trial is expected to continue for at least another month, because in Italy court is not in session every day.
Knox's mother, Edda Mellas finds herself in a position very few mothers ever have, having to defend her daughter who is facing life in prison for murder, and answer questions, through an interpreter, from an Italian judge and attorneys.
"It is surreal," said Mellas. "I know she's innocent. I know exactly what happened right after the time … the phone calls and how shocked and upset she was when she found out Meredith was dead. … We wanted her to come home right away, and she said no, I want to stay."
That turned out to be a fateful decision for the young student. Within a week she was arrested, and for the past 19 months has been in a prison outside Perugia, where her parents, who divorced when she was young, can visit her twice a week for an hour.
It is a bittersweet hour, and they have watched their oldest daughter turn 21 in prison. Next month, she will turn 22. Her junior year abroad has become an overseas nightmare.
The walled and well-protected city of Perugia has not taken kindly to intruders for the past 500 years. Each year it is invaded by those students. Joining the onslaught this year has been a horde of journalists, each looking for an angle on the story. Because the victim in the case is British, and the defendants are from the United States and Italy, the journalists represent those three countries. And to use that old adage, where they stand on this white-hot international murder mystery depends on where they are from.
To many of the U.S. television and print media, Amanda Knox appears to be an innocent abroad, the victim of circumstance and a zealous prosecution. Many of the reporters who understand Italian have pored over the documents and testimony and so far seem unconvinced by blanket declarations of Knox and Sollecito's innocence. But they are keeping an open mind, pending the defense's case.
To the British press, largely sympathetic to the Kercher family, who are now suing Knox, she was a somewhat spoiled American whose hygiene and personal habits Kercher complained about to friends. To the Italian press, Knox's inconsistencies and her behavior, kissing Sollecito outside the murder scene (her defenders say she was seeking comfort during a time of stress) and doing cartwheels in the police station while Sollecito was being questioned (she may have been doing a yoga stretch, again to relieve stress), seem odd and suspicious.
Forensic psychologist Xavier Amador, a Columbia University professor, has an explanation for Knox's behavior following her roommate's murder. "I think cartwheels and kisses right after the death of her friend could mean so many different things," he told ABC News. "This could be immaturity and anxiety. It doesn't scream to me of culpability in the murder. The behaviors that tell me the person is probably involved in some way are things like reticence to talk to the authorities. Disappearing, not even being able to be found. These are the kinds of behaviors that are typically associated with people who are found guilty, in my professional experience."
As Knox prepared to take the stand last week, with the stakes so high -- especially because Sollecito was not testifying -- the media were abuzz with speculation about how she might do. "It could either go really well for her, and she shows the genuineness of her quirky personality," said Andrea Vogt, a U.S. journalist who lives in Italy and has been covering the trial for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Or it could go really poorly, and she's very unpredictable and unscripted, and maybe she'll get off-message."
In the end, the outcome may have been a bit of both, again, depending on where you sit.
Meredith Kercher's murder case itself is complex, with a range of technical and forensic evidence, and legal issues that either point circumstantially to Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito's guilt, or to their lack of involvement in the crime. Another man, a local drifter named Rudy Guede, has already been convicted of the crime and is facing 30 years in prison. But that has not deterred the prosecution from pursuing its case against Knox and Sollecito, on the theory the crime was motivated by a sex-game that went terribly wrong, ending in Kercher's brutal stabbing.
It may seem hard for some to imagine that Sollecito, an engineering student, and his girlfriend of one week, Knox would have taken part in such a horrible crime. But seeming inconsistencies in their dual alibis, some forensic evidence -- including a knife with Knox and Kercher's DNA on it -- and the fact that Knox wrote a statement saying she might have been at the scene, after an all-night interrogation without a lawyer, has placed the former couple in the center of this international firestorm. To the press and the attorneys for both sides, they are either cunning and cold-blooded killers, or they are young innocents who truly were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For nearly 12 hours over the course of two days last weekend, Knox answered questions from a half dozen lawyers and one of the judges. She spoke mostly in Italian, and seemed calm and confident on the stand. Her answers were often long and the judge several times asked her to answer more directly. But there is much to explain, and much that is lost in translation, despite Amanda Knox's fluency.
Knox explained the vague confession by saying she was beaten and bullied by Italian police, and that she was called "a stupid liar."
"I was very, very scared," she said. "Because they were treating me so badly, and I didn't understand why." The Perugia police department is now reportedly threatening to sue Knox for slander.
However, there are some things that do need to be sorted out by the defense in the coming weeks, such as small amounts of mixed blood and DNA in the bathroom the women shared. On the stand, Knox said she hadn't noticed any blood when she was last in the bathroom the day before the grisly killing.
The next morning she came home from her boyfriend's, she testified, to take a shower. But she was asked: If the house was cold -- this was early November and there was no heat in the cottage -- why would she take a shower? And only after the shower did she notice any blood. "I touched them with my fingers," she told the court. "They were dried."
But as far as her supporters are concerned, the lack of evidence of Knox in the room where Kercher's body was found, naked except for her shirt, her body covered with a comforter, is the clearest indication of Amanda's innocence. "Not a speck of hair, not a fingerprint, no pieces of DNA to any degree in that room -- and have it cleaned up. It is impossible, impossible," said her father.
But as many questions as Knox may have answered on the stand, she raised a few new questions. She struck a strange chord with some when she described the details of Kercher's death as "yucky," a reference to an episode of CSI she had seen about a stabbing.
The British press seized on that as an example of her insensitivity, and indeed the young American abroad is being judged, it seems, as much on how she delivers her message as what she says. Asked what she recalled about finding out her roommate had been killed, she said she was "shocked. … I could not imagine something like that." Then, she added: "In the end I only knew her a month, and more than anything … I am thinking of how to move forward with my life."
Watching this young American student surrounded by attorneys and the media, it is hard to imagine what must be going through her head. She seems relaxed, dressed casually in blouses and slacks. But she knows that for her and her family, everything is riding on these next few weeks.
Her father, Curt, left town earlier this week, and the next day, her mother arrived from Seattle. "I've lost count of how many times I've come here in the last year and a half. I guess about 10," Mellas told ABC News. "In a really weird way, it's gotten to be kind of just a part of the routine of life now."
For this stranger in a strange land, the now-too-familiar ritual continued this week with a visit to her daughter in prison on the outskirts of Perugia. For the past 19 months, Mellas or Curt Knox has tried to be here for the one hour twice a week they are allowed to see their daughter. They have seen Amanda turn 21 in prison. Next month, around the time the defense is wrapping up its case, she will turn 22.
"How does a mother prepare to take the stand to defend her daughter?" ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas asked Edda Mellas. "I have no idea," Mellas responded, "You know, I've never had to do this before."
Vargas: "Do you worry about getting emotional when it's so important, what you say?" Mellas: "Absolutely. … The good thing is, there's nothing to lie [about]. I just tell what I remember. … I don't think I can be tripped up when you're just telling the truth and what you remember."
Asked how they maintain their equanimity, Curt Knox said: "You stay focused on Amanda and making sure that that light is there for her, and you just work through it. You just have to. You're not going to leave an innocent daughter in a foreign prison."
Today, sitting alone in the center of the courtroom, Mellas told her side of the story. Now that the the latest leg of her journey is complete, this math specialist will spend the rest of her summer break in Perugia, to support her daughter. They both know that there will be more tests to come.
The Italian court will take a two-month summer break, with closing arguments and a verdict expected this fall. By then the fall colors will be appearing in the spectacular rolling hills of Umbria, and Amanda Knox will be close to starting her third year in prison.