PERUGIA, Italy -- Amanda Knox headed home to the United States a free woman Tuesday, after an Italian appeals court dramatically overturned the American student's conviction of sexually assaulting and brutally slaying her British roommate.
The family of 21-year-old victim Meredith Kercher appeared overwhelmed at the ruling, saying they were shocked and bewildered by the stunning reversal of the 2009 decision. The prosecutor said he would appeal the decision releasing Knox and her co-defendant and one-time boyfriend, Italian Raffaele Sollecito.
Knox and Sollecito were convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher, who shared an apartment with Knox in Perugia. Knox was convicted to 26 years, Sollecito to 25. Both had been in prison since Nov. 6, 2007, four days after Kercher's body had been found at the apartment.
But, the prosecution's case was blown apart by a court-ordered DNA review that discredited crucial genetic evidence.
The jury upheld Knox's conviction on a charge of slander for accusing bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba of carrying out the killing. The judge set the sentence at three years, less than the time Knox had spent in prison.
Knox dissolved into tears as the verdict was read in a packed courtroom after 11 hours of deliberations, and she needed to be propped up by her lawyers on either side. Two hours later, she was in a dark limousine that took her out of the Capanne prison just outside Perugia, where she had spent the past four years, and headed to Rome.
"During the trip from Perugia to Rome, Amanda was serene," said Corrado Maria Daclon, the secretary general of the Italy-US Foundation, a group backing Knox, who was with her in the car. "She confirmed to me that in the future she intends to come back to our country."
On Tuesday, Knox thanked those Italians "who shared my suffering and helped me survive with hope," in a letter to the foundation.
"Those who wrote, those who defended me, those who were close, those who prayed for me," Knox wrote. "I love you, Amanda."
Sollecito, meanwhile, arrived back home near the southern Italian city of Bari before dawn on Tuesday. He was quoted by Italian news agencies as saying he was looking forward to seeing the sea, but he declined to make any appearances after reaching home.
Sollecito's father Francesco said his son remained stunned by the events.
"He is trying to recover himself," Sollecito's father told reporters. "He is going around touching things as if he is a child who needs to take back the things of his life, to acquire forgotten elements."
While waves of relief swept through the defendants' benches in the courtroom, members of the Kercher family, who flew in for the verdict, appeared dazed and perplexed. Her sister Stephanie shed a tear, while her mother Arline looked straight ahead.
The Kerchers had pressed for the court to uphold the guilty verdicts, and resisted theories that a third man convicted in the case, Rudy Hermann Guede, had acted alone. Guede, convicted in a separate trial, is serving a 16-year sentence.
Just before deliberations began Monday, Knox tearfully told the court she did not kill her roommate.
"I've lost a friend in the worst, most brutal, most inexplicable way possible," she said. "I'm paying with my life for things that I didn't do."
Knox and Kercher were in the medieval Umbrian town of Perugia to study abroad.
Patricia Thomas contributed to this report.
Nov. 2, 2007: Meredith Kercher (pictured) was found dead in her Perugia apartment. It was determined she died the night before. Nov. 6: Amanda Knox, Kercher's American roommate was arrested with her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and Diya Lumumba, who owned the pub where Knox worked. The latter was released from jail due to lack of evidence on Nov. 20.
This is the house in Perugia, a university town in central Italy, where Kercher and Knox lived. Witnesses said the two roommates had a falling out over a number of issues, including Knox's sanitary habits, alleged thefts of cash and her alleged habit of bringing "strange men" back to the home.
In this Sept. 16, 2008 file photo, then murder suspect Amanda Knox is escorted by Italian penitentiary police officers from Perugia's court after a hearing, central Italy. Knox was arrested on Nov. 6, 2007 with her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and the owner of the pub she worked at. She and Sollecito were indicted on murder and sexual assault charges in October, 2008.
This Nov. 2, 2007 file photo shows Italian student Raffaele Sollecito outside the rented house where 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher was found dead on Nov 1, in Perugia, Italy.
Dec. 6, 2007: Rudy Hermann Guede, center, a drifter from the Ivory Coast, was extradited from Germany and jailed. He was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to 30 years in prison. An appeals court upheld the conviction on Dec. 22, 2009, but his term was reduced to 16 years.
June 26, 2009: Murder suspect Raffaele Sollecito is escorted by a penitentiary police officer as he arrives for a hearing in the Meredith Kercher murder trial, in Perugia, Italy.
June 13, 2009: Amanda Knox testifies at the sitting of the Meredith Kercher murder trial at the Perugia courthouse in Perugia, Italy.
Dec. 4, 2009: Court finds both Knox and Sollecito (pictured) guilty of murder and sexual assault. They are convicted to 26 and 25 years respectively.
December, 2009: Arline Kercher, the victim's mother, wipes her eyes during a news conference following the guilty verdict.
The Italian newspaper Corriere dell' Umbria carries news of the convictions of Knox and Sollecito. The case made headlines in both countries, but for different reasons: In the U.S., it was seen by legal experts as deeply flawed. But in Italy, Knox was viewed as harboring a secret dark side and was largely presumed guilty.
December, 2009: Knox's father, Curt, and her sister Deanna leave an Italian prison in Capanne after visiting Amanda. The family insisted she was innocent. "We will take this as far as we have to take this, because she is walking out of there totally free of anything related to this," Curt Knox later told The Seattle Times.
April, 2010: Knox's attorneys argued in their appeal that the forensic and DNA evidence in the case was mishandled and inconclusive. They also contend that prosecutors failed to come up with a motive and that the conviction was based on false hypotheses.
June 1, 2010: Knox appears in a Perugia court for a preliminary hearing on charges she slandered Italian police. She claims police beat her during questioning in Kercher's death. Knox's parents were charged with libel for repeating their daughter's allegations.
Nov. 24, 2010: Knox, 23, appealed her conviction and 26-year prison sentence for Kercher's murder. The trial for her and Sollecito opened in Parugia. Here, she appears with her lawyer, Carlo Dalla Vedova, at a Jan. 22 hearing.
Rudy Geude, already convicted separately for his part in Meredith Kercher's death, is now pointing the finger at Knox and her boyfriend.
Feb. 15, 2011: Knox's parents, Edda Mellas and Curt Knox, were indicted on slander charges. The pair faced sentences to up to three years in prison if convicted.
A 2 image combo shows Amanda Knox entering the Perugia court in these May 21, 2011, left, and Feb. 14, 2009 file photos. Two years ago, as she waited to know whether she'd be found guilty of murdering her British roommate, Amanda Knox was so confident she thought she'd be flying home within hours. She never did. Still behind bars, still waiting for a verdict, this time by an appeals court, the American is a changed woman, family and friends say, more mature, more wary of people around her, increasingly anxious as the moment of truth approaches. The transformation is apparent from the outside. Gone is the Beatles sweater, the confident demeanor, the irreverent smile. Now 24, Knox is conservatively dressed, pale and thinner. (AP Photo/Stefano Medici/Files)
Oct. 3, 2011: Amanda Knox breaks in tears after hearing the verdict that overturns her conviction and acquits her of murdering her British roommate Meredith Kercher, at the Perugia court. Italian appeals court threw out Amanda Knox's murder conviction and ordered the young American freed after nearly four years in prison for the death of her British roommate. Knox collapsed in tears after the verdict overturning her 2009 conviction was read out. Her co-defendant, Italian Raffaele Sollecito, also was cleared.
The 24 year-old American who spent four years in an Italian prison had her murder conviction reversed by an appeals court, that questioned evidence and ordered immediate release. Within hours, she was heading home to Washington State. Tim Minton says reasonable doubt cuts both ways.
After an intense bidding war, HarperCollins has struck a deal with Amanda Knox to tell her story.
March 26, 2013: Italy's highest criminal court overturned Amanda Knox's acquittal in the killing of her British roommate and ordered a new trial, prolonging a case that has become a cause celebre in the United States.
The case has been a cause celebre in the U.S., and a staple of British tabloids, which took to calling her "Foxy Knoxy." Throughout the four-year case, Knox was portrayed either as a femme fatale with an angel face or a naive young woman caught up in a judicial nightmare.
The verdict was controversial. Hundreds of mostly university-age young people gathered in the piazza outside the courtroom in Perugia, jeered and yelling, while Knox's supporters in her home town of Seattle hugged and shouted in joy.
British tabloids played up the drama of Knox's release - and the Kerchers' pain. The "Daily Mail" headline read "Weeping Foxy is Freed to Make a Fortune," referring the reports that Knox could earn a paycheck in the U.S. for an exclusive interview.
Back in Perugia, Kercher's family searched for answers.
"It was a bit of a shock," said Stephanie Kercher, the victim's older sister. "It's very upsetting ... We still have no answers."
Lyle Kercher, a brother, said the family has been left to wonder who is guilty. A third man has been convicted in the brutal slaying, however his trial concluded he did not act alone.
"If the two released yesterday were not the guilty parties, we are obviously left to wonder who is the other guilty person or people. We are left back at square one," Lyle Kercher said.
The 24-year-old Knox arrived at the Rome airport in a Mercedes with darkened windows and waited for boarding inside a private waiting area Tuesday, out of public view and away from the media scrum. She headed to London, where she will catch a connecting flight to the United States.
Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini expressed disbelief in the verdict, and vowed an appeal to Italy's highest criminal court.
"Let's wait and we will see who was right. The first court or the appeal court," Mignini told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"This trial was done under unacceptable media pressure. The decision was almost already announced; this is not normal," he said.
If the highest court overturns the acquittal, prosecutors would be free to request Knox's extradition to Italy to finish whatever remained of a sentence. It is up to the government to decide whether they make such a request.