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Amanda Knox leaves prison after acquittal

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(AP, ABC7) - Amanda Knox left prison Monday, a free woman for the first time in four years, after an Italian appeals court threw out the young American's murder conviction for the brutal stabbing death of her British roommate after a drug-fueled sexual assault.

Knox, 24, collapsed in tears after the verdict was read, a stunning reversal in a sensational saga that became a cause celebre in the U.S. Her co-defendant and former boyfriend, Italian Raffaele Sollecito, also was cleared of killing 21-year-old Meredith Kercher in 2007.

"We're thankful that Amanda's nightmare is over," her younger sister, Deanna Knox, told reporters outside the courthouse. "She suffered for four years for a crime she did not commit."

About 90 minutes after the verdict was handed down, a black Mercedes carrying Knox was seen leaving the prison. She was expected to board a commercial flight for home on Tuesday.

The fatal blow to the prosecution's case was a court-ordered DNA review that discredited crucial genetic evidence used to convict Knox and Sollecito in 2009. They were sentenced to 26 and 25 years, respectively.

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. Meredith's older sister, Stephanie, shed a tear, and her mother, Arline, looked straight ahead.

"We respect the decision of the judges but we do not understand how the decision of the first trial could be so radically overturned," the Kerchers said in a statement. "We still trust the Italian justice system and hope that the truth will eventually emerge."

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.

There were two options to acquit: that there wasn't enough evidence to uphold the conviction or that the pair simply didn't commit the crime. The eight-member jury determined the latter, clearing Knox and Sollecito completely.

The verdict reverberated through the streets of this medieval hilltop town, where both Knox and Kercher had arrived with so much anticipation for overseas studies programs four years ago.

Hundreds of mostly university-age youths gathered in the piazza outside the courtroom jeered as news of the acquittals spread. "Shame! Shame!" they yelled, adding that a black man had been made to shoulder all of the guilt for the murder.

Knox was pale, clearly terrified and appeared breathless as she arrived for the verdict shortly after 9:30 p.m.

Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann read out the verdict in a frescoed subterranean courtroom packed with reporters. In five minutes, Knox's fate was reversed.

"The appeals Court of Perugia ... orders the immediate release of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito," Hellmann said.

The jury upheld Knox's conviction on a charge of slander for accusing bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba of carrying out the killing. But it set the sentence at three years, amounting to time served. Knox has been in prison since Nov. 6, 2007, five days after the murder.

After the verdict, Knox dropped her head in sobs and had to be propped up by lawyers on both sides of her.

Prosecutors said they would appeal to the nation's highest criminal court, the Court of Cassation, after reading the court's reasoning, due out within 90 days.

"Tonight's sentence is wrong and confounding," prosecutor Giuliano Mignini told the ANSA news agency. "There is a heavy conviction for slander. Why did she accuse him? We don't know."

"The Court of Cassation will establish who is right" between the lower court and the appeals court, he added. Mignini said there was "unprecedented media pressure," revisiting a theme he touched on during his closing arguments.

Reactions to the acquittal have been mostly supportive in the U.S.

British tourists at their country’s embassy said the Knox trial has been front-page news in the UK because the victim, Knox's roommate Meredith Kercher, was British.

At the Elephant and Castle restaurant in downtown D.C., patrons were talking football and the Knox trial.

Donna and Tom Schoonover are from Knox's hometown of Seattle, Washington. “Her parents have been on the news every night creating a sympathetic figure. The Seattle audience is pretty biased for her,” they said whether she did it or not nobody knows but her.

"Amanda's parents, family and friends have been through an incredible ordeal. We are thankful she will be free to return to Seattle as soon as possible,” Washington State's U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell said in a statement.

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