Amanda Knox released after Italy murder appeal victory

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US student Amanda Knox was released from prison on Monday after being acquitted of murder and sexual assault in Italy in a dramatic victory for her four-year legal battle to prove her innocence.

The 24-year-old Seattle native sobbed as the verdict was read out and her parents burst into tears in the courtroom in Perugia in central Italy.

She was driven back to the Capanne prison near the town and discharged to be reunited with her family. She is expected to leave Italy on Tuesday.

Knox was acquitted "for not committing the act," judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann said, reading out the ruling after 11 hours of jury deliberations.

Murder victim Meredith Kercher's family meanwhile sat in stunned silence.

"We are grateful Amanda's nightmare is over. She suffered for four years for a crime she did not commit," Knox's sister, Deanna, told reporters.

"We are grateful for the support we have received all over the world and we are thankful to the court for having the courage to look for the truth.

"We now respectfully ask for the space Amanda and our family need to recover from this ordeal," she said, wiping away tears.

In the United States, the State Department reacted to the verdict saying it appreciated the "careful consideration" of the case in the Italian courts and Knox's friends in Seattle cheered and wept as they watched the verdict live.

"It was like an electrical current going through my body," said Margaret Ralph, who knew Knox as a high school student. "I just keep thinking of how happy her mother's going to be," said Kallane Henry, a friend of Knox's family.

But outside the courtroom in Perugia an angry crowd of hundreds of local residents gathered and there were shouts of: "Shame! Shame!" and "Murderers!"

Some heckled Knox's lawyers and one man shouted: "They're guilty!"

"This is shameful. You can do anything with money in Italy," said one man in the crowd, 42-year-old Massimo. Lori, 25, said: "It's disgusting!"

Knox's former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who was appealing the same convictions for the gruesome 2007 killing, was also acquitted.

Knox was however found guilty of slander for falsely identifying the owner of a bar where she worked as a waitress as the killer in her first interrogation just days after the November 1, 2007 murder.

She was sentenced to time already served and will have to pay compensation.

The 21-year-old Kercher was found half-naked in a pool of blood on the floor of her bedroom in the cottage she shared with Knox. Her body was covered in knife wounds and bruises and investigators found traces of a sexual assault.

Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison for the murder and Sollecito to 25 in the original trial. A third person, Rudy Guede, was also convicted and is serving out a 16-year prison sentence after exhausting his chances for appeal.

Prosecutors had asked for life sentences against Knox and Sollecito and had alleged she was killed in a drug-fuelled attack involving all three.

Knox, Sollecito and Guede have all denied any involvement in the killing, although Guede said he was in the house at the time of the murder while Knox and Sollecito said they were at Sollecito's house that night.

"I did not kill, I did not rape, I did not steal. I wasn't there," an ashen-faced Knox told the court earlier on Monday as her family wept, before the eight-person jury retired to chambers to consider its verdict.

"I want to go home. I want to return to my life," she said in a statement that she had to interrupt frequently as she struggled to contain her emotions.

"I am not the person they say I am. I am not into perversion and violence," she said, after her accusers told the court that she was a "she-devil".

Kercher's family meanwhile complained their loved one had been "forgotten" in a case that has focussed on the figure of Knox and they lashed out against what they called a "large PR machine" working to secure Knox's acquittal.

"The brutality of that night, everything Meredith went through, the fear, the terror, she didn't deserve that," Kercher's sister Stephanie said, wiping away tears in a rare press conference in Perugia ahead of the verdict.

"Mez has been forgotten in all of this. It's difficult to keep her memory alive. We're here today to find justice," she said, urging jurors to ignore the "media hype". Four hundred journalists are covering the trial in Perugia.

Appeal verdicts that overturn the original case are relatively rare in Italy but Knox's defence had the upper hand for much of the appeal, particularly after independent experts cast serious doubt on some crucial DNA evidence.

Sollecito also spoke before the verdict, saying: "I have never hurt anyone in my life." He took off an arm band with the inscription "Free Amanda and Raffaele" and presented it to the court as a symbol of their innocence.

© 2011 AFP

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