Knox pleads for mercy as Italy verdict looms

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American student Amanda Knox broke down and pleaded for mercy on Monday hours ahead of a verdict from the Italian court hearing her appeal against convictions for murder and sexual assault.

"I did not kill, I did not rape, I did not steal. I wasn't there," the tearful 24-year-old told jurors in the university town of Perugia in a court packed with dozens of photographers, cameramen and Knox supporters.

"I am paying with my life for a crime I did not commit," an ashen-faced Knox said, her hands joined as if in prayer in the hushed courtroom, just before the eight-person jury retired to consider the 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.

Knox also told the court that her faith in Italian police had been "betrayed" and that she had been "manipulated" during her four-year legal saga.

"I lost a friend in the most brutal and inexplicable way possible," she said of the victim, her British housemate and fellow student Meredith Kercher.

Kercher, 21, 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 dozens of knife wounds and bruises and investigators found traces of a sexual assault.

Knox's sister Deanna cried as she spoke and the judge said she could sit but Knox gathered her strength, held the table for support and remained standing.

She entered the court with her head bowed wearing a black hooded jacket and dark green top as dozens of photographers, cameramen and supporters packed the hall for the final day of her appeal after queueing from before dawn.

She was driven out of the tribunal in a police van with sirens blaring through a crowd of journalists as the tense wait for the verdict set in.

"The Kerchers want the verdict to be upheld," said Francesco Maresca, a lawyer for Kercher's family. Her mother Arline was in Perugia for the verdict.

Knox's co-appellant Raffaele Sollecito, her former boyfriend, also made a statement before the verdict, saying: "I have never hurt anyone in my life."

He took off a white bracelet with "Free Amanda and Raffaele!" written on it to the court and said he had worn it throughout his time in prison. He presented it to the court, saying it was a symbol of his innocence.

Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann said the verdict was expected after 8:00 pm (1800 GMT). Under the Italian system, the eight-person jury includes Hellmann himself, another judge and six jurors from the general public.

"We're all tense but hopeful because the defence has clearly shown that Amanda is innocent," Knox's mother, Edda Mellas, told reporters.

Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison and Sollecito to 25 years in 2009.

Prosecutors asked for their sentences to be increased to life in prison during the appeal, which began in November 2010.

Local small-time drug dealer and petty thief Rudy Guede has also been convicted on the same charges as Knox and Sollecito but was tried separately and is serving a 16-year sentence after exhausting his appeals.

Knox and Sollecito would have one more appeal if the verdict is upheld.

All three convicted for the murder have protested their innocence, although Guede claims he was in the house that night but did not wield the knife.

Prosecutors say the murder was the result of a sexual attack on Kercher and that Knox slashed her housemate while the other two held her down. They say Guede may have been in the house for a drug deal with Knox and Sollecito.

In her first interrogation, Knox said she was in the house at the time of the murder and she falsely identified the owner of a bar where she worked as a waitress as the killer. He was arrested but quickly exonerated.

Knox now says that she was with Sollecito at his house all night and that her initial comments were misunderstood and only given after heavy questioning.

The key to the appeal has been the analysis of two pieces of evidence that helped convict Knox and Sollecito -- a kitchen knife and Kercher's bra clasp.

Police said they had found Knox's DNA on the handle and Kercher's on the knife, the presumed murder weapon, which was found in Sollecito's kitchen.

The bra clasp was picked up by investigators at the scene of the murder several weeks after the killing and was believed to have Sollecito's DNA on it.

But independent experts commissioned by the appeal court said the DNA work in the investigation had been shoddy and that the DNA traces were too low.

© 2011 AFP

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