A cup of warm milk for the 'she-devil' of Perugia

As Amanda Knox begins her 26-year sentence for murder, her family vows to continue to fight for her freedom. Andrea Vogt reports
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The Independent Online

After hearing her sentence, they waited up past midnight, made her warm milk and reassured her with hugs when she walked back into her cell. Amanda Knox's cellmates – a Roma, a woman from China and another from Kosovo – held a vigil on Saturday for the 22-year-old from Seattle.

Prison guards who have befriended Knox over the past two years came by to check on her every 15 minutes, stopping to say a few words of support. "She's down, very down," said her lawyer, Luciano Ghirga, after the first prison visit Knox has been allowed since receiving her sentence. "I hugged her. She's depressed, disappointed, all of those things."

Everyone at Capanne prison just outside the picturesque Umbrian hilltop town of Perugia knows how hard it is to return to prison after a harsh conviction, especially one like Knox's, fraught with controversy and uncertainty. In Knox's case, it was 26 years for the murder of Meredith Kercher – a sentence she and her family say they will fight with all they've got.

The long-awaited decision came just after midnight, approximately 13 hours after the jury began deliberating. Even the presence of a special Italian security unit in and outside the courtroom couldn't organise a queue, leaving the throng of international media to push and shove through a narrow wooden door. Inside the courtroom, the scene was gut-wrenching. As she was pronounced guilty, Knox leaned her head against the chest of her Perugian attorney and began to weep. Her little sister, Deanna, broke down and began shaking uncontrollable, her sobs echoing through the still room. Knox's father and stepfather grew red in the face with anger and frustration. Several young inebriated Italians shouted "assassini" at Curt Knox and his two young daughters as they walked back to their hotel, without any security escorts, but followed by numerous paparazzi. "Hell yes," he said later that evening when asked if he would appeal.

Any future appeal will probably revolve around the series of police mistakes and forensic oversights that clouded this trial. For example, defence lawyers argued that trace DNA readings on the kitchen knife alleged to be the murder weapon were mishandled. Knox also claims she was mistreated during an interrogation session without a lawyer present, which police deny. An appeal can be lodged after the judge has delivered his full explanation of the sentence.

As the sentence was read, tears also ran down the pained faces of two female jurors who stood trembling as the scene unfolded. The Kerchers also grew emotional, in memory of the daughter and sister they lost, who had just received "a little bit of justice", as Meredith's sister Stephanie Kercher put it yesterday. After two years of showing the world "the elegance of silence", as their lawyer described their reserve, the Kercher family finally spoke publicly about the trial and the jury's sentence Saturday. "Ultimately we are pleased with the decision," said Meredith's brother, Lyle. "But it is not the time for celebration. It is not a moment of triumph. We got here because our sister was brutally murdered and taken away from us."

The Kerchers were the only ones to stay silent over the course of the past two years as the rift over Knox's guilt or innocence poisoned international debate and garnered tawdry headlines. The divide fractured largely down national lines and spawned a cottage industry of blogs, books and films. Media pundits, lawyers and armchair detectives pinned their reputations on the case, which just seemed to get more bizarre as it went along.

Much attention was paid to Knox's theatrical character and odd behaviour, which police testified had made them suspect her from the start, but which her lawyers argued may have been misunderstood cultural and generational differences. She seemed

flippant in the face of tragedy, police said, and spoke crassly about Kercher's death to her English friends, who testified about habits that bothered Kercher, such as not flushing the toilet, leaving condoms in plain sight, or strumming the same chord on the guitar over and over again. At one point she did a cartwheel in the hallway while waiting to be questioned.

And much was made of her sexual history, revealing a number of old-fashioned stereotypes about women that hinged on an ancient Catholic double narrative: saint or sinner? Knox, the innocent American abroad being smeared in a corrupt foreign system, or Knox the calculating "luciferina" who let her hate and jealousy for her flatmate spiral out of control. "She-devil or Santa Maria Goretti?" one lawyer asked. More "Amélie from Seattle" than "Amanda the Ripper", a defence lawyer countered.

The Kerchers were asked by reporters in a question-and-answer session yesterday if they had qualms about supporting the prosecution's contested theories. "In order to be involved with this case, that's the line we needed to take," said Meredith's brother John. "But it is not for us to decide. We are not the detectives, the lawyers, or the judge and jury." Kercher's mother, Arline, said she agreed with the verdict. "You have to go with the evidence. Because that's all there is."

Family members said the verdict only scores a "dotted line" under the case, however, as they expect Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who was sentenced to 25 years, to seek appeals. In interviews with American television networks, Knox's parents, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas, reiterated their belief that their daughter is innocent, saying, "We will continue to fight for her freedom".

In other developments yesterday, a senator from Washington, Maria Cantwell, issued a blistering statement saying that the case had revealed serious "flaws in the Italian justice system", including harsh treatment of Knox during an interrogation and negligent handling of forensic evidence. When asked about the criticism from across the Atlantic, the British consul, David Broomfield, refrained from comment, saying he was present in Perugia solely to "be with the family". But legal scholars say that while the specific case may have revealed doubts about how the investigation was handled, that doesn't necessarily reflect on the Italian trial procedure.

"From my observations this was a fair trial," said Stefano Maffei, a researcher in Italian criminal procedural law at the University of Parma. "And while it may seem slow to those in the US and UK, it actually progressed at a normal pace for a trial in Italy that is so high profile."

Saturday's sentence also provided for €4.4m in compensation for the Kerchers. "It is different from in the UK, in that this compensation is symbolic, to represent the gravity and severity of this case," said Lyle Kercher. Stephanie, Meredith's sister, said the family's lives have been on hold as they waited for the trial to end. Finally, she said, "a little bit of justice has been done for her, and for us".

Who's Who: Key players in the affair

Raffaele Sollecito: The Partner in Crime. Knox claimed she spent the night of the killing at the flat of Sollecito, her then boyfriend, 25. He was also found guilty of murder on Friday.

Rudy Guede: The Drifter. Guede, 21, was convicted of the murder last year after fleeing to Germany. He claims he was in the bathroom at the time of the killing but heard screams. He has lodged an appeal.

Curt Knox and Edda Mellas: The Murderer's Parents. The divorced couple have very publicly defended their daughter. They have accused the media of influencing the jury.

John and Arline Kercher: The Victim's Parents. Both were in court for Friday's verdict, after which John hugged the prosecutor. They also appeared as witnesses and have been awarded €4.4m compensation.

Giuliano Mignini: The Prosecutor. Accused Knox and Sollecito within a week of the murder. Asked for life sentences and solitary confinement for the accused, whose sentences were lenient because of their youth.

Luciano Ghirga: The Defence Lawyer. He hugged Knox, his clent, after the verdict. She sobbed on his chest. He accused the jury of lacking courage. "I am not at peace," he said.

Giancarlo Massei: The Judge. He read the jury's verdict out to the courtroom on Friday. He presided over the trial, rejecting at an early stage an application from the Kercher family to have the case heard behind closed doors.

Carlo Pacelli: The Lawyer for Patrick Lumumba, whom Knox wrongly accused of the crime. He described her as a "talented ... liar, who had deliberately gone out of her way to frame Patrick".

The verdict: Was justice done?

The trial case

*The discovery of a kitchen knife with Knox's DNA on the handle and Kercher's on the tip implicated her in the killing.

*Knox's statement to police placed her at the scene of the crime the night that Kercher was killed.

*Positioning of genetic material on the knife suggested it had been used to puncture skin and was not the result of normal domestic use.

*Knox and co-accused Raffaele Sollecito faked a burglary by breaking a window in Kercher's room.

*Knox was alleged to have purchased lingerie shortly after the death and reportedly performed gymnastics while waiting to be questioned by investigators.

*She was overheard having an explicit conversation about "wild sex" with Sollecito shortly after the incident and was seen on CCTV kissing him.

*She initially blamed a Congolese barman, Patrick Lumumba, for the death but he later proved his innocence.

The appeal case

*The DNA found on the knife implicating Knox was destroyed during testing because the trace was so small.

*Experts say that at least two of the wounds on Kercher's neck could not have been made by the blade presented by the prosecution as the murder weapon.

*Knox's defence counsel says some DNA had been contaminated. Those protesting Knox's innocence point to a video of the crime scene which apparently shows the long hair of a female investigator coming close to a hair sample on the duvet.

*A bloody print on bed linen indicates a different knife was used in the attack.

*Footage of the crime scene investigation shows officers scrubbing bloody shoeprints which other investigators try to locate in later footage.

*Knox claims she was struck twice by investigators during her interrogation.

*Leaks of court documents and a sustained media campaign could have affected the impartiality of the jury, according to Knox's family.

*Knox's family has demanded to be told why there is no evidence to place Knox in the room where Kercher died.

Greg Walton