PERUGIA, Italy - After four years in prison and convicted of murder, Amanda Knox has a chance at freedom Monday when an appeals court decides if she killed her British roommate a case that made Knox an unwilling celebrity and placed Italy's justice system under scrutiny.
Knox and her co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito are expected to make a final case for their innocence as the appeals trial wraps up and the eight-member jury begins deliberating whether their 2009 convictions and prison sentences 26 years for Knox, 25 years for Sollecito should stand, be dismissed or altered.
Sollecito made his appeal to the court first, saying he was in an "idyllic situation" on the day of the murder. He had met Amanda just days earlier, was preparing to read his thesis, and was looking forward to spending his first weekend with his American girlfriend.
"It was our desire to leave the world outside and spend the night together," Sollecito told the jury and the judges. He showed a bracelet with "Amanda and Raffaele Free" written on it. He said it was now time to take it off, as a symbol of the "long black tunnel" he and Knox had been through.
The trial has captivated audiences worldwide: Knox, the 24-year-old angel-faced American, and Sollecito, the bespectacled Italian who was once her boyfriend, were convicted of murdering fellow student Meredith Kercher in what the lower court said had begun as a drug-fueled sexual assault.
"It's such a shock to send your child to school and for them to not come back," Kercher's mother Arline said in court in the original trial. She, her other daughter and one son are expected to be in Perugia, a central Italian town, for the verdict.
Knox and her family hope she will be set free after spending four life-changing years behind bars as an innocent caught up in what they say is a monumental judicial mistake. Prosecutors, who have depicted Knox as a manipulative liar, are seeking to increase her sentence to life in prison.
For the Kercher family, Monday's verdict is a chance at justice for the 21-year-old student, who was living with Knox at the time of her slaying.
"They will be here Monday and they will look at you just one time," the family's lawyer, Francesco Maresca, told the jury in his final words in the case. "With that single glance, they will ask you to confirm the truth."
The case has 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 is made up of the presiding judge, a side judge and six jurors, five of them women will be broadcast live.
The jury has several options as they go into deliberations: They can acquit both defendants and set them free. They can uphold the conviction and confirm the sentence, reduce it or increase it. They can theoretically decide to split the fate of Knox and Sollecito, convicting one and acquitting the other. Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann is expected to lead the discussion.
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 by Maresca 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 a Congolese man implicated by Knox during police questioning and later cleared. That false accusation against Diya "Patrick" Lumumba remains 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.
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 have 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 maintain 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.
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 has emerged and witness testimony was contradictory and, in some cases, flat-out unreliable. It was a huge victory for the Knox camp "She's breathing for the first time in years," Knox's mother Edda Mellas said at the time and a potentially fatal blow for the prosecution.