PERUGIA, Italy Oct. 3, 2011— -- Amanda Knox was acquitted today of a murder that riveted three countries for the past four years and just hours later was whisked away from an Italian prison, ending her four-year ordeal.
The Seattle woman's legs buckled and she let out a silent cry when the judge in Perugia, Italy, announced that the appeals court had thrown out her conviction for the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher and vacated her 26-year prison sentence.
Knox, 24, was hustled out of the courtroom, barely able to walk, stumbling while being hauled along by court officers. The former exchange student was crying and doubled over, her head occasionally coming up for big breaths of air.
Hours later, a pair of black vehicles slid out of the gates of Capanne Prison outside of Perugia, with Knox in the back seat. She is expected to return to home to Seattle immediately.
Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted in December 2009 of killing Kercher in a 2007 attack that left the British exchange student partially nude and bleeding to death from a slashed throat. Sollecito was also acquitted of the murder today.
Knox, 24, and Sollecito, 27, have spent the past four years in an Italian prison and faced the prospect of a life sentence depending on today's appeals court ruling.
The tension of the moment was so acute and full of dread for Knox that she looked pale and physically ill when she was brought into the courtroom for the verdict. A female member of her legal team knelt next to Knox to comfort her.
When the judge cracked the tension by announcing her acquittal, Knox nearly collapsed, her face contorted with relief and tears.
Left behind in the courtroom was the family of Meredith Kercher, Knox's British roommate, whom she was accused of killing. Kercher's mother, Arline Kercher, sat stoicly long after the elated Knox family hugged one another fiercely and streamed out into the street.
In the street, the family was greeted with cheers and boos with some shouting "disgrace."
Knox's younger sister, Deanna, talked to reporters from the steps of the courthouse, saying, "We are thankful that our nightmare is over. She has suffered for four years for a crime she did not commit."
The jury did find Knox guilty of slanderingDiya "Patrick" Lumumba, a bar owner in Perugia who once hired Knox. Knox inadvertently implicated Lumumba in the murder after nearly 50 hours of interrogation by police.
Knox's lawyers argued that Knox mentioned Lumumba because police essentially put those words in her mouth, insisting that he was involved because her cell phone had a message to Lumumba the night of the murder that said in Italian, "See you later."
The maximum sentence for slander is three years in prison, but Knox has already served four years. She was also ordered to pay 22,000 euros to Lumumba.
Knox's family has been a constant presence at the nearly year-long hearings, but Kercher's family has stayed away before arriving today to hear the verdict.
The court's six jurors and two judges deliberated for hours after listening in the morning to impassioned pleas by Knox and Sollecito to throw out the guilty verdict and set them free.
Knox struggled through tears and, at times, a shaking voice, as she addressed the court in Italian.
"I want to go home. I want to go back to my life. I don't want to be punished. ... I don't want my future taken away from me for something I didn't do because I am innocent," she said.
Seated in the courtroom, Knox's mother Edda Mellas and her younger sister Deanna cried.
Knox's statement combined sweet memories of her brief time with Sollecito before the murder and what she insisted was her friendship with Kercher. But she had bitter words for the Italian police.
"I made myself available up to the point of total exhaustion. ... I was betrayed," she said. "I was manipulated."
"I didn't do what they say I did. I didn't kill. I didn't rape. I didn't steal. I was not there," Knox insisted.
She dismissed prosecution claims that her relationship with Kercher had become strained and angry.
"We had a friendship. ... She was concerned for me. She was always kind to me. She cared about me," Knox said.
In encouraging the six jurors and two judges to set her free, Knox said, "I am not escaping truth. I am not fleeing from justice. I insist on the truth."
Sollecito told the court that he couldn't express how terrible the past four years have been.
"At the end of the day, every single day in prison is like death," he said.
Sollecito looked back at the moment just before he had been arrested when he met Knox. He said he had been "in a beautiful situation." He was about to defend his college thesis and had met this "beautiful vivacious girl, and so sweet."
Sollecito pointed to a rubber bracelet he was wearing with the inscription, "Free Amanda and Raffaele" that was given to him.
"I think it's time for me to take it off," he said, removing the band and hoping the court would not send him back to prison.
Amanda Knox Verdict
Lawyers for the prosecution called Knox a sex obsessed "she devil" and a liar. Twice they showed the court grisly photos of Kercher's nude and bloodied body, along with close-ups of the gash in her neck.
"They [the defendants] are young, and they killed for nothing, for no reason," said prosecutor Manuela Comodi.
Knox's defense countered, saying that she wasn't a "she devil," but was more like Jessica Rabbit, the voluptuous cartoon character who was tender and loving. "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way," was her trademark line.
Knox's lawyers told the court she had been "crucified" by the media during the investigation and trial, a reference to the often lurid coverage of the case in tabloid papers, as well as seven books and a movie.
Forensics may have played a bigger role than rhetoric in the court's verdict. Much of the appeal revolved around whether the DNA on two key pieces of evidence were credible.
Two court appointed experts looked at the prosecution's evidence and delivered a damning assessment that the manner in which the DNA was collected, stored and analyzed was below international standards.
One involved the alleged murder weapon, a knife found in Sollecito's kitchen. Prosecutors claimed the handled contained Knox's DNA and a speck on the blade contained Kercher's DNA. But the experts said the speck was too small to make a second test to confirm the analysis and the experts concluded that DNA came from bread.
The second piece of evidence was allegedly Sollecito's DNA on the bra clasp cut from Kercher's bra during the attack. The experts said it was improperly handled and likely had been contaminated.
The prosecution defended their evidence and dismissed the experts' conclusion as the shoddy work of people with little experience in genuine investigations.