By COLLEEN BARRY
FLORENCE, Italy - An appeals court in Florence began deliberations Thursday in the third murder trial of U.S. student Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend as the star defendant waited on another continent with, in her words, "my heart in my throat."
Knox's defense team gave their last round of rebuttals, ending four months of arguments in Knox's and Italian Raffaele Sollecito's third trial for the 2007 murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in the Italian university town of Perugia.
Knox's lawyer Carlo Dalla Vedova told the court he was "serene" about the verdict because he believes the only conclusion from the files is "the innocence of Amanda Knox."
"It is not possible to convict a person because it is probable that she is guilty," Dalla Vedova said. "The penal code does not foresee probability. It foresees certainty."
Dalla Vedova evoked Dante, noting that the Florentine writer reserved the lower circle of hell for those who betrayed trust, as he asserted that police had done in Knox's case when they held her overnight for questioning without representation and without advising her that she was a suspect.
Presiding Judge Alessandro Nencini said the court would deliberate Thursday for at least seven hours.
Knox, 26, awaited the verdict half a world away in Seattle, where she returned after spending four years in jail before being acquitted in 2011. In an email to this court, Knox wrote that she feared a wrongful conviction.
She told Italian state TV in an interview earlier this month that she would wait for the verdict at her mother's house, "with my heart in my throat."
Knox's absence does not formally hurt her case since she was freed by a court and defendants in Italy are not required to appear at their trials. However, Nencini reacted sternly to her emailed statement, noting that defendants have a right to be heard if they appear in person.
Sollecito, on the other hand, has made frequent court appearances, always in a purple sweater, the color of the local Florentine football club. He was in court again Thursday, accompanied by his father and other relatives.
If convicted, Sollecito, who like Knox spent four years in jail, risks immediate arrest. Knox's situation is complicated by her absence. In the case of a guilty verdict, experts have said it is unlikely Italy would seek her extradition until a verdict is finalized, a process that can take a year.
Members of Kercher's family were expected to appear later at court.
Italy's highest court ordered the third trial in a scathing dismissal of the appeals court acquittal, ordering the examination of evidence and testimony it said had been improperly omitted by the Perugia appeals court as well as to redress what it called as lapses in logic.
"Most of all, the court was instructed to evaluate all of the evidence in their complexity," said Vieri Fabiani, one of the lawyers for the Kercher family.
The first trial court found Knox and Sollecito guilty of murder and sexual assault based on DNA evidence, confused alibis and Knox's false accusation against a Congolese bar owner, which resulted in a slander verdict that has been upheld on final appeal. A Perugia appeals court dismantled the guilty verdict two years later, criticizing the "building blocks" of the conviction, including DNA evidence now deemed unreliable by new experts, and the lack of motive.
With the dismissal of the acquittal, the Florence deliberations will either confirm or overturn the initial guilty verdict, "as if the acquittal never happened," Fabiani said.
In Florence, the new prosecutor, Alessandro Crini, redefined the motive, moving away from the drug-fueled erotic game described by his colleagues in Perugia. Crini contended that the outburst of violence was rooted in arguments between roommates Knox and Kercher about cleanliness and was triggered by a toilet left unflushed by Rudy Hermann Guede, the only person now in jail for the murder.
Suspicion fell on Knox and Sollecito within days of the discovery of Kercher's half-naked body on Nov. 2, 2007, in her bedroom in Perugia. Kercher, 21, had been sexually assaulted and stabbed multiple times.
Guede, a small-time drug dealer originally from Ivory Coast who had previous convictions for break-ins, is serving a 16-year sentence for the murder, but courts have said he did not act alone.
In the case of Knox and Sollecito, the defense teams are certain to appeal any guilty verdict to Italy's supreme court, which can take a year or more and could, in theory, result in yet another appeals court trial. The prosecutor general, on the other hand, could decide to let an acquittal stand.
Crini, who has demanded 26 years on the murder charge for each of the defendants, has asked the court to take measures to ensure any verdict could be enforced. He also asked the court to raise Knox's sentence on the slander conviction, which has been finalized, from three to four years because he alleges she accused the wrong man to remove suspicion from herself.