By Massimiliano Di Giorgio
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's top court on Friday annulled the conviction of American Amanda Knox for the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher and, in a surprise verdict, acquitted her of the charge.
The brutal killing and tangle of trials that followed gripped attention on both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring books and films. Kercher's family said Meredith, who died aged 21, risked being forgotten.
The Court of Cassation threw out the second guilty verdict to have been passed on Knox and her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito for the lethal stabbing, saying there was insufficient evidence to convict either of them.
It had been widely expected that, even if the court overturned the previous convictions, it would order a retrial. Instead, both Knox and Sollecito are now definitively cleared.
"I cannot tell you how I feel in this moment," said her lawyer Luciano Ghirga outside the Rome courtroom after the verdict before he called Knox to tell her the news.
"I personally feel overjoyed that the truth has won out, that she is innocent," said David Marriott, a spokesman for Knox in her home town of Seattle.
Prosecutors had asked for jail sentences of 28 years and three months for Knox, and 24 years and nine months for Sollecito.
Knox, 27, and Sollecito, 31 have both already served four years in jail each after an original conviction in 2009.
The acquittals almost eight years after the murder are sure to stoke further controversy and questions about the Italian justice system, which has now twice overturned guilty verdicts in the case.
South London-born Kercher was found stabbed to death in a house she shared with Knox in the mediaeval hill town of Perugia in 2007. Rudy Guede, originally from the Ivory Coast, is serving a 16-year sentence for the crime, but judges in the previous trials ruled he did not act alone.
If the conviction against Knox had been upheld it would probably have sparked a complicated extradition process by Italian authorities.
Knox, who returned to Seattle in 2011, and Sollecito have maintained their innocence throughout but Knox's lawyer Ghirga said before the verdict on Friday that his client was "very, very worried."
Following the 2011 acquittal, the Court of Cassation ordered a new trial. A Florence court convicted them again, saying the murder had been the result of a domestic argument, squashing the previous theory that it happened when a sex game went wrong.
In Friday's verdict, a previous three-year jail sentence given to Knox for falsely accusing Congolese barman Patrick Lumumba of the murder was confirmed. But as Knox has already served four years in prison this has no practical consequences for her.
(Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Additional reporting by Isla Binnie in Rome and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Lisa Shumaker)