Amanda Knox freed: acquitted, heads home after 4-year prison nightmare

(Photo by AP)(Photo by AP)Amanda Knox is going home. The 24-year-old Seattle student was acquitted today of murder charges.

Also acquitted was Rafaelle Solecito, Knox's co-defendant and boyfriend at the time of the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher.

The decision, which came after 11 hours of deliberation, reverses Knox's 2009 sentencing of 26 years in prison. The college co-ed made headlines around the world when she was implicated in the brutal stabbing of Kercher in 2007.
Throughout her four years behind bars in Perugia, where she initially traveled through a university abroad program, she's maintained her innocence. Now she's headed home with her family, who had gathered round her in Italy for her appeal.

When the verdict was read, Knox broke down in tears. Her family and supporters cheered as court officials demanded silence. She does face a charge of slander against police, after her accusations of being slapped during her stay in jail were deemed false. For that, she was sentenced to time served and a penalty of $29,000. She is now free to return to the U.S., once she gets her passport renewed (it expired during her time behind bars).

For now, those closest to her are just happy for her freedom. "We're thankful that Amanda's nightmare is over," Knox's sister said outside the courthouse.

In the recent days, Knox has appeared physically fragile and her parents claim her time locked up has taken a toll on her body-she's broken out into hives, and had difficulty eating or sleeping while awaiting the court's decision.

Earlier today, Knox, who's now fluent in Italian, read a statement in the country's native tongue pleading her innocence. "[Meredith] had her bedroom next to mine, she was killed in our own apartment. If I had been there that night, I would be dead too but I was not there," Knox said of Kercher's brutal stabbing. "I insist I'm innocent and that must be defended. I just want to go home, go back to my life."

The question remains whether she'll ever be able to return to her old life. "Personalities change after enduring stress," George Everly Jr., associate professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University told ABC News. "You take someone's freedom away, restrict their activities and what they do. Captivity, in short, is very stressful and there is the possibility that it will have a long-term adverse effect -- not just psychological, but physical health, as well."

The Guardian's John Hooper, covering the trial in Perugia, also debated Amanda's ability to move on. "One thousand four hundred and fifty days and nights in a foreign prison would be enough to change anyone, even without the merciless media scrutiny and courtroom character assassination to which Knox has been subjected," writes Hooper. "Fellow inmates, in contact with Italian reporters, have spoken of a woman who has become less trusting, while developing great inner resources."

What's certain, is that when she returns home, her life won't be as she left it. Around Seattle she's a local hero. The Seattle Times covered the Knox trial in depth and Seattle-area residents were photographed gathered together in homes and bars awaiting the televised verdict, as if rooting for a home team. Rumors of a major TV interview and an inevitable autobiography are abound.

In the meantime, the family of 21-year-old Kercher still mourns the loss of their daughter. "It's very difficult to talk about forgiveness at this time, with the [media] hype around the case...The brutality of it has been forgotten," Kercher's brother, Lyle told press. After the verdict was read, the Kercher family said in statement, they "hope that the truth will eventually emerge."

Watch Knox's final appeal to the court for freedom.

Parents: how prison has affected Amanda Knox
Amanda Knox: story of the mysterious, tragic murder
Mother's nightmare: son captured in Iran