Amanda Knox Talks: The Murder Trial Gripping Italy

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American Amanda Knox, accused of killing her British housemate two years ago, listens to questions during her trial in Perugia, Italy

Amanda Knox is a riddle. The expatriate American student has been the mysterious, ambivalent Mona Lisa face plastered across television, websites and newspapers since a few days after Halloween 2007. According to Italian authorities and their partisans in the blogosphere, where her case has been strenuously debated, behind her beatific smile lies a psycho hedonist capable of depraved murder. But family and friends insist she's just a granola-crunching athlete and honor student from Seattle who has, through bad luck, become the poster child for the perils that await American girls caught up in the dark side of Italy.

On Friday, in six hours of testimony, Knox finally spoke for herself, after a year and a half of silence and media speculation on the likely motives for the crime. She accused Italian police of hitting her and repeatedly calling her a "stupid liar," bullying her into a false statement on the fifth night after the murder she has been charged with. She reeled out what she said was an imagined tale of what "might have happened," placing herself with her British roommate Meredith Kercher on the night Kercher's throat was slit in the picturesque cottage they shared overlooking the Umbrian hills. Kercher bled to death after what police say was an agonizing two hours. Prosecutors say Knox cut her roommate's throat after Kercher refused to participate in group sex with the American and her alleged accomplices.

At a packed hearing in a medieval building in the vertiginous central Italian hill town of Perugia, in a room with restored Madonna-and-child frescoes on a back wall, Knox painted herself as the victim of a false confession in which a seemingly sympathetic Italian police interpreter described her own traumatic experience that made her "forget what happened" and then suggested the same psychological syndrome might have affected Knox. "It was a complicated situation," Knox said, describing how she confessed to being in the cottage and falsely accused her former boss of murder as well. Knox now says she spent the night in question across town, smoking pot and sleeping with her boyfriend. She says the police urged her to imagine other possible scenarios. "They insisted I had left [the boyfriend's] apartment at a certain period of time. I didn't remember that. The interpreter said I was probably traumatized and had forgotten."

That onetime boyfriend and co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, looked on from nearby, biting his fingernails. Knox, clad in a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar and sporting a pony tail, described a friendly relationship with the murder victim, one in which the girls shared pizza, talked dates and sunbathed together. That was in contrast to testimony earlier from Kercher's British girlfriends, who said the two women didn't get along.

Knox's measured explanation of her sometimes bizarre behavior in the hours and days after the murder certainly helped her defense. What the press called "cartwheels" in the police station during questioning, she explained as stress-reducing yoga; she said photographs of her making out with Sollecito in the yard outside the cottage as police inspected the murder scene simply reflected her state of "shock" and his efforts to console her with "cuddling."

Knox's father, former Macy's executive Curt Knox, was in the courtroom, following the testimony with the help of an interpreter. "I'm very happy," he told TIME at the end of the day. "She's done a fantastic job. She has cleared up a lot of questions; for example, Why did she turn off her cell phone that night? She turned off her cell phone because she didn't want to get called back to work that night. She has nothing to hide."

Knox said his daughter's testimony will counterbalance the more insidious image created by sensationalist coverage in the Italian and British press during the past year and a half. "She comes into this courtroom and smiles at me and her attorneys, and they take these pictures of her smiling out of context and say, Look, she's having a glorious day in court!" On the contrary, Knox says, his daughter "feels the Kerchers' heartfelt loss." "I hope people are starting to recognize she's an honest person who wants to tell the truth."

Francesca Bene, of the local Giornale dell'Umbria, one of many Italian reporters who have covered the case from Day One, said Knox had, in her opinion, advanced her cause by making clear what police had not previously conceded — that Knox thought she was being a helpful witness when in fact police were targeting her as a suspect and should have told her so. Under questioning from her own lawyer, Knox said she never thought to call the American embassy or a lawyer, even after being called in for a fourth day of questions. Knox said she only realized she was a murder suspect when she was brought before a judge after she had put herself at the murder scene, coaxed into what she thought was an imaginary scenario by police.

"I just thought they wanted to talk to me because I was the closest to [Meredith] in the house," Knox told the court in the Italian she has perfected during 18 months in prison. "If they ever told me [I was a suspect], I had no idea ... When they took me before the judge and they said, You are a suspect in Meredith's death, I was completely shocked and surprised. My jaw dropped."

Knox also said she was acquainted with Rudy Guede — an alleged accomplice already convicted of the rape and murder of Kercher at a so-called "fast-track" trial — but that she didn't remember his name. She learned of his arrest on television after she had been in jail for several weeks, at which point she thought she would be released. Instead, the local prosecutor, using forensic evidence and Knox's statements, persuaded a judge to try her and Sollecito for murder as well.

On Saturday, prosecutors and lawyers for the Kercher family expect to grill her harder. "I expected her to cry," Kercher family lawyer Francesco Maresca told TIME. "But her testimony was a very good job by the defense. She was calm. And that is not the personality of Amanda Knox from the first days of the investigation. I have a lot of questions."

Meanwhile, the case is developing into a matter of national pride in both Italy and the U.S. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, heavily criticized by the Knox family and American supporters, did not question Knox on Friday. Sources told TIME he is seething over a blog on Thursday's New York Times website, which described his case as full of flaws backed by shoddy police work. He told TIME he would react publicly to the recent U.S. criticism next week.

— With reporting by Giulia Alagna/Perugia

Burleigh is writing a book on the Knox case, to be published by Broadway Books in 2011.