Amanda Knox appeals opens in Italy

PERUGIA, Italy – After three years in prison, Amanda Knox is returning to court for a second chance at freedom.

The American student’s appeals trial opens Wednesday in this Medieval city, with lawyers hoping they can use new evidence to clear her in the killing of her British roommate.

There’s a risk: If her conviction is upheld, she could face an even harsher sentence.

Lawyers for the 23-year-old Knox are seeking a full review of the case, and will try to introduce new witnesses. In December, Knox was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering Meredith Kercher, and sentenced to 26 years in prison. She has always maintained her innocence.

The case captured the world’s imagination and turned the photogenic Knox into a media sensation. She has been the subject of countless articles, several books and even a movie in which her character is played by TV star Hayden Panettiere.

It has also proved very divisive, with the US media often depicting Knox as an innocent woman caught in a judicial inferno, while Italian and British newspapers have cast her as a sex-crazed liar.

The new trial, to be held in the same frescoed courtroom as the first one, will bring Knox back in the spotlight. Also on trial is Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian who was Knox’s boyfriend at the time of the murder and has been convicted of the same charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In the first trial, Knox mostly appeared confident and collected. She would nod and smile to the court upon entering the room and talk to her lawyers during breaks. On a Valentine’s Day hearing, she sported a bright T-shirt with “All You Need Is Love” scrawled in large pink letters.

Now, her lawyers describe her as worn out.

“The long pre-emptive custody has broken down the young woman,” Knox’s lawyers said in a motion filed earlier this month as part of their appeal. Attorney Luciano Ghirga described Knox as “worried, tense” ahead of the appeal, and “exhausted by three years in prison.”

Press reports have described Knox as being involved in prison activities, such as staging plays. An Italian lawmaker who has often visited her, Rocco Girlanda, has said she largely spends time reading books, studying languages and writing poems and fiction. In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Girlanda said Knox had appeared to have matured as a result of her “difficult life” in prison.

Knox has been behind bars in Perugia since Nov. 6, 2007, four days after Kercher’s body was found in a pool of blood, her throat slit, in the apartment Knox and Kercher shared as exchange students in Perugia. Forensic experts said Kercher was killed on the night on Nov. 1.

Prosecutors, who had sought a life sentence in the first trial, have also appealed the ruling, as they can in Italy.

“There is an appeal both from the defendants and the prosecutor, so it is a situation where potentially there could be also an increase of penalty,” said Chiara Magrini, a legal expert and professor at John Cabot University. “This is a situation where everything could happen.”

The opening hearing Wednesday is expected to be quick and devoted to procedural matters, lawyers said. Both defendants are expected to attend. The case is then to be adjourned, likely to Dec. 11.

The defence lawyers for Knox and Sollecito are seeking a full review of the forensic evidence, including disputed DNA evidence that was found on a knife allegedly used in the murder and on the clasp of Kercher’s bra. The defence maintains that DNA traces were inconclusive, and also contended they may have been contaminated when analyzed.

Whether Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellman will accept these requests will be closely watched as a possible indication of how he will handle the trial. As in the first trial, the verdict is up to the judge a fellow magistrate and a jury of six.

If the court does admit new evidence and witnesses, then “the logical conclusion seems to be that they are not happy – I am not saying with the decision, but with the evidence that was collected in the first trial,” Magrini said.

The decision is not expected to be made on Wednesday but at later hearings.

In their appeal motion, Knox’s lawyers were sharply critical of the verdict, maintaining it was based on mere hypotheses and saying that “the motive, a fundamental aspect of a serious crime, is basically absent.”

They denounced an “obscene media campaign” against their client, accused police of focusing their investigation into the slaying on the assumption that Knox was guilty, and said the court made the same mistake.

“The verdict is constructed almost as if to find the evidence to support a theory” they wrote in the motion.

During the first trial, the prosecutors failed to provide a “smoking gun,” and also lacked a motive.

Prosecutors did present circumstantial evidence and forensic evidence linking both Knox and Sollecito to the crime, and the court in their verdict supported this evidence against the defence’s claims. They described Knox as a manipulative, promiscuous woman whose personality clashed with Kercher’s.

In their December ruling, the judges said they found no inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. The killing was carried out without planning or animosity, but still it was the result of a brutal sexual assault, the court said in a document that was released in March and summed up the reasoning behind the verdict.

According to the court’s reconstruction of the night of the murder, Knox and Sollecito were at the house with a fourth person, Rudy Hermann Guede, an Ivory Coast citizen who has also been convicted of murder in separate proceedings. Guede’s presence at the house was likely the result of a casual encounter, the court said.

According to the document, Knox and Sollecito assisted Guede’s sexual desire for Kercher, becoming her brutal assailants together with the Ivorian man and ultimately killing the 21-year-old when she resisted the sexual approach. The pair might have found Guede’s sexual drive toward Kercher “exciting” or might have been under the influence of drugs, the document said.

This largely aligns with the prosecution’s case, which argued that once at the house, Knox and Kercher started arguing and the three brutally attacked and sexually assaulted the Briton, under “the fumes of drugs and possibly alcohol.”

Knox’s defence argued that the American spent the night at Sollecito’s house, watching a movie, smoking pot and having sex. Knox said she went home the next morning to find the door to the house open and Kercher dead.

The defence has maintained Knox was not the she-devil depicted by the prosecution, but an innocent woman who had just started dating Sollecito and was hardly looking for an extreme sexual experience. Knox said she was friends with Kercher, and that her death shocked her.

Knox’s behavior in the aftermath of the killing came under scrutiny.

Knox gave contradicting statements to police, originally saying she was in the house the night of the murder and accusing a Congolese man – in whose Perugia bar she worked – of being the murderer. She said at one point that she had covered her ears to drown out Kercher’s screams as she was being murdered. The Congolese man was jailed but later cleared. Knox was convicted of defaming him, though she maintains that police pressure led her to initially accuse an innocent man.

For that claim, Knox has recently been indicted on charges she slandered police in separate proceedings. If she is convicted in that trial, which begins in May, any prison sentence Knox receives would be added to her current sentence.

The 26-year-old Sollecito, who reportedly won an engineering degree in prison recently, has also maintained his innocence. One if his lawyers, Luca Maori, said he is “hopeful but apprehensive.” Guede, the Ivorian, has also denied killing Kercher, though he has admitted being in the house the night of the murder. His sentence to 30 years in prison was cut to 16 years on appeals.

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