PERUGIA, Italy (AP) - In a stunning reversal, Amanda Knox was cleared Monday of a conviction of sexually assaulting and brutally slaying her British roommate and immediately left prison to return to the United States and pickup a life interrupted by four years behind bars in Italy.
The 24-year-old Knox dissolved into tears as the verdict was read in a packed courtroom, and needed to be propped up by her lawyers on either side. Just 11 hours earlier, she had tearfully but resolutely pleaded for her life, asserting that she had nothing to do with Meredith Kercher's violent death.
In a quick turnaround, Knox was in a dark limousine headed toward Rome, where she was expected to board a commercial flight for home on Tuesday. Her one-time boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito also saw his conviction overturned and set free to return to his home in southern Italy.
The prosecution's case was blown apart by a court-ordered DNA review that discredited crucial genetic evidence used to convict the two in 2009. Knox and Sollecito were sentenced to 26 and 25 years respectively.
While waves of relief swept through the defendants' benches in the courtroom, members of the Kercher family, who flew in for the verdict, appeared dazed and perplexed. Meredith's older sister Stephanie shed a quiet tear, her mother Arline looked straight ahead.
"We respect the decision of the judges but we do not understand how the decision of the first trial could be so radically overturned," the Kerchers said in a statement. "We still trust the Italian justice system and hope that the truth will eventually emerge."
The Kerchers had pressed for the court to uphold the guilty verdicts passed two years ago, and resisted theories that a third man convicted in the case, Rudy Hermann Guede, had acted alone in killing the 21-year-old student. Guede, convicted in a separate trial, is serving a 16-year sentence.
The verdict reverberated through the streets of this medieval hilltop town, where both Knox and Kercher had arrived with so much anticipation for overseas studies programs four years ago.
Hundreds of mostly university-age youths gathered in the piazza outside the courtroom jeered as news of the acquittals spread. "Shame, shame," they yelled, adding that a black man had been made to shoulder all of the guilt for the murder.
Knox was pale, clearly terrified and almost looked out of breath as she arrived for the verdict shortly after 9:30 p.m.
Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann read out the verdict of the eight-member jury in a frescoed subterranean courtroom packed with reporters. In five minutes, Knox's fate was reversed.
"The appeals Court of Perugia ... orders the immediate release of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito," Hellmann said.
The jury upheld Knox's conviction on a charge of slander for accusing bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba of carrying out the killing. But it set the sentence at three years, meaning for time served. Knox has been in prison since Nov. 6, 2007, five days after the murder.
Relief washed over Amanda, as she dropped her head in sobs.
"Amanda had a crying fit, she broke down," said Maria Del Grosso, a lawyer in her team who has been closed to her throughout the case and held Knox moments after the verdict was read. "We couldn't make her stop crying."
"She was a nervous wreck when she came in," she added.
Prosecutors said they would appeal to the nation's highest criminal court, after reading the court's reasoning due out within 90 days.
"Tonight's sentence is wrong and confounding," prosecutor Giuliano Mignini told the ANSA news agency. "There is a heavy conviction for slander. Why did she accuse him? We don't know."
"The Court of Cassation will establish who is right" between the lower court and the appeals court, he added. Mignini said there was "unprecedented media pressure," revisiting a theme he had touched on during his closing arguments.
Knox's family has attended hearings in Perugia and kept a high profile in the media, in stark contrast with the Kercher family, who rarely showed up over the course of the four-year case and only arrived in Perugia Monday with deliberations already under way.
The prosecutors' appeal to the Court of Cassation is not expected to be filed until after the court releases its reasoning for Monday' acquittals.
In the meantime, nothing in Italian law would prevent Knox from returning home to Seattle. An Italian lawmaker who has championed her case, Rocco Girlanda, said she was due to fly out Tuesday from Rome.
"We're thankful that Amanda's nightmare is over," her little sister Deanna Knox told reporters and throngs of onlookers outside the courthouse after the verdict. "She suffered for four years for a crime she did not commit."
She then asked for privacy for the family so they
could "recover from this horrible" ordeal.
In a news conference earlier in the day, the Kerchers expressed hope that the jury would deliberate without considering the intense media coverage of the case.
Stephanie Kercher lamented that her sister "has been nearly forgotten" in the intense media coverage that had shifted to focus on Knox and her appeals battle.
"We want to keep her memory alive," she said before the verdict.
The trial has captivated audiences worldwide: Knox and Sollecito, who had just begun dating, had been convicted of murdering Meredith in what the lower court said had begun as a drug-fueled sexual assault.
The U.S. State Department said it appreciated the "careful consideration" the Italian justice system gave to the case. "Our Embassy in Rome will continue to provide appropriate consular assistance to Ms. Knox and her family," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said after the verdict.
Lawyers for Knox and Sollecito charged that Guede was the sole killer, but the prosecution and a lawyer for the Kercher family said that bruises and a lack of defensive wounds on Kercher's body prove that there was more than one aggressor holding her into submission.
In Seattle, about a dozen Knox supporters were overjoyed that she has been cleared of the murder conviction.
"She's free!" and "We did it!" they shouted at a hotel where they watched the court proceedings on TV.
Earlier Monday, Knox tearfully told the court she did not kill her roommate.
"I've lost a friend in the worst, most brutal, most inexplicable way possible," she said of the 2007 murder of Kercher, who shared an apartment with Knox when they were both students in Perugia. "I'm paying with my life for things that I didn't do."
She frequently paused for breath and fought back tears as she spoke in Italian to the eight members of the jury in a packed courtroom, but managed to maintain her composure during the 10-minute address.
"I never hurt anyone, never in my life," Sollecito said Monday in his own speech to the jury.
From the start the weak point in the prosecution's case was lack of motive along with unreliable and at times contradictory witness testimony. Therefore much depended on the scientific evidence gathered by investigators.
Prosecutors maintained that Knox's DNA was found on the handle of a kitchen knife believed to be the murder weapon, and that Kercher's DNA was found on the blade. They said Sollecito's DNA was on the clasp of Kercher's bra as part of a mix of evidence that also included the victim's genetic profile.
But the independent review -- ordered at the request of the defense, which had always disputed those findings -- reached a different conclusion.
The two experts found that police conducting the investigation had made glaring errors in evidence-collecting and that below-standard testing and possible contamination raised doubts over the attribution of DNA traces, both on the blade and on the bra clasp, which was collected from the crime scene 46 days after the murder.
Sensing danger, prosecutors spent several hearings and a significant portion of their closing arguments to refute the review, attacking the experts as unqualified, standing by their original conclusions and defending the work of forensic police.
They also pointed to what a prosecutor, Manuela Comodi, called "gigantic, rock-solid circumstantial evidence" that contributed to the original convictions.