PERUGIA, Italy — Amanda Knox, the 24-year-old American found guilty in 2009 of murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher, was a free woman after an appeals court jury on Monday acquitted her and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito.
Knox, 24, collapsed in tears as the jury's verdict was read.
The jury had two options to acquit: determining there wasn't enough evidence to uphold the conviction or that the pair simply didn't commit the crime. The jury determined the latter, clearing Knox and Sollecito completely.
After briefly returning to prison for a formal discharge, Knox was seen being driven away in a convoy. Rocco Girlanda, an Italian lawmaker who is close to the Knox family, said she planned to leave Italy on Tuesday.Story: Knox heads home from Italy; prosecutor to appeal verdict
In court, the Kercher family looked on grimly as the verdict was read out by the judge after 11 hours of deliberations by the eight-member jury.
Outside the courthouse, some of the hundreds of observers shouted "Shame, shame!"
The Kercher family issued a brief statement, saying: "We respect the decision of the judges but we do not understand how the decision of the first trial could be so radically overturned. We still trust the Italian justice system and hope that the truth will eventually emerge."
As Knox waited for the verdict to be read, she appeared tense — leaning forward in her chair, and panting and wincing between exchanges with her lawyer. A dark cloak draped around her, she put her hands to her face several times.
A public prosecutor announced Tuesday that he planned to appeal the acquittal to Italy's highest court .
Nothing in Italian law would prevent her from returning home, legal experts say.
A slander conviction against Knox, who falsely accused barman Patrick Lumumba of the murders, was upheld, but since that was a three-year sentence it was considered time served.
'Not a promiscuous vamp'
Earlier Monday, a tearful Knox told the jury that she did not kill her British roommate, pleading for the court to free her so she can return to the United States after four years behind bars.
Knox frequently paused for breath and fought back tears as she spoke in Italian to the jury in a packed courtroom, but managed to maintain her composure during the 10-minute address.
"I'm not a promiscuous vamp. I'm not violent ... I have not killed, I have not raped, I was not there, I was not present," the American told a packed courtroom in Perugia.
"I want to go home, I want to go back to my life, I do not want to be punished and to have my life taken away from me for something I have not done, because I am innocent."What's next for Amanda Knox? Interview requests
The jury weighed whether the 2009 convictions and prison sentences — 26 years for Knox, 25 years for Sollecito — should stand, be dismissed or altered.
The case made Knox an unwilling celebrity and placed Italy's justice system under scrutiny.
'Paying with my life'
Knox looked tense as she entered the courthouse where she and Sollecito made their final case for their freedom.
"I lost a friend, in the most brutal and inexplicable way possible," Knox told the court in Italian. "My absolute faith in the police authorities was betrayed, I've had to face absolutely unfair ... and baseless accusations. I am paying with my life for things I did not commit."
One of the female jurors appeared to be in tears as Knox spoke, NBC's Lester Holt reported from the courtroom.
Minutes before, an anxious Sollecito also addressed the court to proclaim his innocence and plead for his release from prison.
"Every day I have been in prison I have felt dead," Sollecito told the court. "I never hurt anyone, never in my life. I have been in this nightmare and never, ever woken from it."
The weekend in 2007 when Meredith Kercher was murdered was the first he and Knox planned to spend together "in tenderness and cuddles," Sollecito said.Video: Supporters in Seattle react to Knox verdict (on this page)
At the end of his speech, he took off a bracelet that he said read "Free Amanda and Raffaele," saying that he would like "this bracelet and its history to belong to the past."
Kercher's family speaks
After Knox's plea, Kercher's family, who had largely stayed out of the limelight, said the horror of the crime had been lost in a media circus and focus on Knox.
"Meredith has been hugely forgotten in all of this," Stephanie Kercher told reporters before the verdict. "There is not a lot about what happened in the beginning and it is very hard to keep her memory alive."
Stephanie Kercher and her mother Arline said they were satisfied with the original verdict.
"What is good is in the previous trial the judge actually issued a 400 page-document which detailed how he got to that result," Arline Kercher said. "It is a case of finding out what happened to Meredith and get some justice for her."The major players in the Amanda Knox trial
The trial captivated audiences worldwide: Knox, the angel-faced American, and Sollecito, the bespectacled Italian who was once her boyfriend, were convicted of murdering fellow student Kercher in what the lower court said had begun as a drug-fueled sexual assault.
Prosecutors, who depicted Knox as a manipulative liar, had sought to increase her sentence to life in prison.
The case spurred countless articles, books and even movies, and brought the Italian judicial system under a harsh spotlight in the U.S., where many believe the Seattle native was wrongly convicted. At the time of the original verdict, there were suggestions of anti-Americanism that even dragged in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
With huge media interest in the case, the verdict by the jury — which was made up of the presiding judge, a side judge and six jurors, five of them women — was broadcast live.
Kercher's body was found in her own bedroom in the Perugia apartment she shared with Knox on Nov. 2, 2007. Photos of the crime scene shown to the court in the final days of the appeal showed her chest bared, her face and neck covered in blood — a powerful reminder of the brutal nature of the crime.
Four days after her body was found, prosecutors arrested Knox and Sollecito, as well as Lumumba, who was implicated by Knox during police questioning and later cleared.
That false accusation against Lumumba remained one of the most powerful arguments in the prosecution's case against Knox, though the American maintains she acted under police pressure during an interrogation where she had neither a lawyer nor a proper interpreter present.Story: Knox supporters cheer appeals court's decision
Defense lawyers accused prosecutors of acting too hastily.
"An uninhibited young American — she was the perfect culprit," Giulia Bongiorno, a defense lawyer for Sollecito, told the court in her final arguments. "When you want to solve a crime in four days, it's haste."
Knox and Sollecito were convicted and sentenced after the court deliberated for 13 hours. They had always denied wrongdoing.
Over the course of the appeals trial their positions significantly improved, mainly because a court-ordered independent review cast serious doubts over the main DNA evidence linking the two to the crime.
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.Slideshow: A murder in Italy (on this page)
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.
The review was crucial in the case because no motive had emerged and witness testimony was contradictory and, in some cases, flat-out unreliable. It was a huge victory for the Knox camp and a fatal blow for the prosecution.
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 challenged the experts to show exactly how the alleged contamination took place and said there is no scholarly consensus of the minimum amount of DNA required in order for a test to be admissible.
They also pointed to what a prosecutor, Manuela Comodi, called "gigantic, rock-solid circumstantial evidence" that contributed to the original convictions:
- There was a staged burglary in the apartment, used to sidetrack the investigation.
- Knox made contradictory statements early on, saying she was home and had to cover her ears to block out Kercher's screams while Lumumba killed her. Lumumba, who owned a pub where Knox occasionally worked, was jailed for two weeks as a result of that claim.
- On Nov. 2, 2007, Knox called her mother three times, including one call that took place before Kercher's body was found and when it was the middle of the night in Seattle.
- There was no activity on Sollecito's computer that night, even though he maintained he used it during the hours in which Kercher was killed.
The prosecutors did acknowledge the lack of motive, but said many murders that aren't premeditated often happen without a motive.
"They killed for nothing but they did kill; they are young but so was Meredith," Comodi told the court as she wrapped up the case. "They deserve the harshest penalty, which luckily in Italy is not the death penalty."
A third person was convicted in the case — Rudy Hermann Guede, a small-time drug dealer and drifter who spent most of his life in Italy after arriving here from his native Ivory Coast. Guede used to play basketball near the crime scene and was a passing acquaintance of Knox.
The courts that convicted him say Guede took part in the assault, leaving traces of DNA on the victim and at the crime scene. Guede was convicted in a separate fast-track procedure and saw his sentence cut to 16 years in his final appeal.
Defense lawyers maintain that Guede was the sole killer, while prosecutors say that bruises and a lack of defensive wounds on Kercher's body prove that there was more than one aggressor holding her into submission.
Guede says he is innocent, though he admits being in the house the night of the murder. Taking the stand during the appeals trial, he said he believes Knox and Sollecito are guilty.
The pair insisted they were at Sollecito's house the night of the murder, watching the French movie "Amelie" on Sollecito's computer, having sex and smoking pot.Timeline: Amanda Knox trial (on this page)
Their defense maintained that a perverse sexual game is an implausible scenario for two people who had been dating for just six days and were infatuated with each other.
They pointed to the lack of their traces in the crime scene, saying that the defendants could not possibly have cleaned up their traces but left Guede's.
Knox's defense noted she could have left the country in the aftermath of the killing, but said she decided to stay to help out investigators. They also said the kitchen knife, found at Sollecito's house, was not the murder weapon.
What gave the defense hope was the DNA review, which took most of the appeals trial and was a formidable argument for their side. "Today there's very little left. A clue is not enough," Knox lawyer Carlo della Vedova said.
Over the course of the 10-month appeal, Knox had slimmed down, dressed more conservatively and appeared more somber than during the original trial.
She would sometimes take notes, sometimes exchange words with her lawyers or glances with Sollecito. A snapshot caught her winking at Sollecito, but at other times she appeared tired by what was going on around her.
What led the appeals court to reach its decision will be explained when the court issues the mandatory written motivation — due within 90 days of the verdict.
The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.