Amanda Knox to leave Italy after murder acquittal

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Amanda Knox was set to fly out of Italy on Tuesday bound for the United States after being acquitted of murder and freed from prison in an emotion-filled climax to a four-year legal battle.

Knox was in Rome's Fiumicino airport waiting for a flight scheduled to leave at 11:25 am (0925 GMT) for London, from where she is expected to make her way back to her hometown of Seattle, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

She was discharged from a jail near Perugia in central Italy late on Monday after her conviction for killing her British housemate Meredith Kercher was overturned in a rare ruling that prompted tears of joy in Seattle.

Knox's family said they had been through an "ordeal" and a "nightmare" and requested some privacy for the 24-year-old, who had been studying in Perugia.

In a letter released on Tuesday by the Italy-USA Foundation, which has been helping Knox during her detention, she said: "I am forever grateful to whoever wrote to me, defended me, was close to me, prayed for me."

Knox's former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who was convicted on the same charges and appealed together with the US student, was also acquitted and released and was back in his home in Giovinazzo in southern Italy on Tuesday.

Knox sobbed as the verdict was read out on Monday and there were tears of joy among friends and family in Seattle. The US State Department reacted saying it appreciated the "careful consideration" of the case by Italian courts.

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

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

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

Although she was cleared of murder and sexual assault, Knox was found guilty of slander for incriminating the owner of a bar where she worked as a waitress 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 to the unjustly accused man, Patrick Lumumba, as well as his legal fees.

Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini said he will petition against the ruling in Italy's highest appeals court to "ensure justice is done." Prosecutors had been asking for Knox's and Sollecito's sentences to be increased to life in prison.

The final appeal would probably have to be held in Italy in absentia as the US does not normally extradite its citizens abroad for prosecution.

The 21-year-old Kercher was found 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.

At the original trial in 2009, Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison and Sollecito to 25 years. A third person, Rudy Guede, was also convicted and is now serving a 16-year prison sentence after exhausting his appeals.

The prosecution and the Kercher family's lawyer Francesco Maresca had argued during the appeal that Guede, a small-time drug dealer, could not have carried out the crime on his own, given the extent of the wounds on Kercher's body.

The verdict in Guede's own appeal also said he could not have acted alone.

Prosecutors had alleged that Knox, Sollecito and Guede met for a drug deal and then took part in a drug-fuelled sexual attack on Kercher.

Italian newspapers on Tuesday argued that the acquittals were inevitable given the problems with the investigation that were highlighted in the appeal but there was still no convincing picture of what happened that night.

The ruling "will lead to fresh controversy about the Italian justice system," the Corriere della Sera daily said, adding: "Now we have to think about Meredith Kercher. There has to be justice for this young murder victim."

La Stampa agreed, saying in an editorial: "It is sad, unpleasant that the murder of a young woman remains in large part unexplained."

"This is not a victory for justice. It's an acquittal that leaves a bitter taste," it said.

In a tearful statement to jurors ahead of the verdict on Monday, Knox pleaded for mercy saying: "I did not kill, I did not rape, I did not steal."

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

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.

© 2011 AFP

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