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Italian Justice Ministry investigating Knox judge

MILAN - Italy's justice minister on Monday announced an investigation into comments to the Italian media made by the judge who read the guilty verdicts against Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito.

Annamaria Cancellieri said in a one-line statement that she has asked the inspector general to make a "preliminary assessment" of the remarks published by two Italian newspapers over the weekend.

The newspapers quoted Florence judge Alessandro Nencini as saying, among other things, that Sollecito's decision not to testify on the witness stand deprived the defendant of a voice. The judge also commented on the difficulty of reaching a verdict, due to the vast amount of evidence as well as the intense media attention, and acknowledged that assigning a motive for the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher was one of the most "controversial" aspects of the case.

A Sollecito attorney, Luca Maori, said earlier Monday that the comments on the defense strategy are "serious" and could form part of their appeal to Italy's highest court on last week's verdict. Maori said the defense team would seek an investigation into the judge's comments with the ministry, as well as the magistrates' oversight body and the high Court of Cassation.

"This is not a vendetta because a judge handed down a verdict other than what we expected," Maori said by telephone on Monday.

Knox defense lawyer Carlo Dalla Vedova said in an emailed statement that the interviews were "not appropriate," but he reserved comment on any action until the court's reasoning for the verdict is issued, expected within 90 days of the sentence.

Knox's defense also is planning to appeal the verdict.  "She feels that it is a mistake and she will continue fighting for her innocence," Dalla Vedova said.

Members of the magistrate's governing body also said they will request an inquiry, saying Nencini had violated the secrecy of deliberations, anticipated arguments in the yet-published reasoning,  and made comments on the defense trial strategy that suggest "partiality," the news agency ANSA reported.

Disciplinary measures could include a transfer or monetary penalties.

Nencini was the presiding judge on a panel that deliberated for nearly 12 hours on Thursday before upholding a lower-court's guilty finding against Knox, 26, and Sollecito, 29, in the 2007 murder of 21-year-old Kercher.  Kercher, who shared an apartment with Knox in the university town of Perugia, had been sexually assaulted and her throat slit. The case made its way to a second appeal after Italy's highest court vacated a Perugia appellate court's 2011 acquittal, challenging its failure to include some evidence as well as its logic.

Knox remained in the United States for this trial, having been freed on the earlier appeal. In his ruling, Nencini did not issue any precautionary measures against Knox, noting she was legitimately in the United States. He ordered Sollecito's passport to be revoked.

In the comments published on Saturday, Nencini told the Corriere della Sera and il Messaggero newspapers that the judicial reasoning will comment on why the court decided not to separate the positions of Knox and Sollecito in their deliberations and verdict.

Nencini said one clear difference in the Knox and Sollecito defenses is that Sollecito had never been questioned directly, besides during the investigation, even by the prosecution, according to il Messaggero.  "The ability not to be heard in a trial is a right, but it deprives the subject of a voice," il Messaggero quoted Nencini as saying.

Sollecito's defense lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, had requested in her closing argument that the jury not consider Sollecito as an extension of Knox, but look at him in his own right.  The two defense teams, nonetheless, remained very close in their arguments and maintained a common alibi that the couple had spent the night of the murder together in Sollecito's apartment.

Maori pointed out that the prosecution never requested Sollecito's testimony.

Nencini on Monday denied having made any judgment on the defendants' legal strategy. "If my words generated a misunderstanding about the absolute legitimacy of the choice of a defendant to make voluntary statements, I regret it," the news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.

He said he had spoken "casually" with journalists he ran into in tribunal corridors and who had presented him with "rumors and inferences" about the deliberations.

"My intention was to clear up possible misunderstandings," Nencini was quoted as saying.

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