PERUGIA, Italy – Independent forensic experts will have 90 days starting next month to review crucial evidence linking American student Amanda Knox to the murder of her British roommate, an appeals court said Saturday.
Knox was convicted in 2009 of sexually assaulting and murdering Meredith Kercher, and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Her co-defendant and ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito was also convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Their lawyers have disputed DNA traces used to back up the convictions and obtained an independent review at the start of the appeals trial.
The experts appointed by the appeals court, Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti from Rome's Sapienza University, were formally sworn in at a hearing Saturday, the first of the new year. They will begin their review on Feb. 9 at a university lab, conclude by May 9 and report their findings to the court on May 21.
Kercher was stabbed to death the night of Nov. 1, 2007. Her body was found in a pool of blood the following day in the apartment the 21-year-old shared with Knox. They were both exchange students in Perugia, a university town in central Italy.
Prosecutors maintained in the first trial that Knox's DNA was found on the handle of a kitchen knife they believe to be the murder weapon, and that Kercher's DNA was found on the blade. They say Sollecito's DNA was found on the clasp of Kercher's bra.
The defense says those DNA traces were inconclusive and that they might have been contaminated when they were collected and analyzed.
The two independent experts can either make new analyses on the DNA traces that were found, or, if that isn't possible, review the analyses that had been carried out by previous forensic experts and assess whether they are reliable, according to the mandate of the court.
But they might look to go a bit further. Conti, one of the independent experts, asked if he could open up the handle of the knife, to determine if blood or other traces might have seeped through. This led prosecutors and a lawyer representing the Kercher family to argue that such an analysis would go beyond the boundaries of the experts' mandate.
But Presiding Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann did not rule it out.
"The initial mandate is ample," he told the experts. "If you see it necessary to open up the handle, make a specific request to the court, which will then decide."
Experts appointed by both the prosecution and the defense will be present during the review.
While the evidence review is being carried out, the trial will continue with witnesses sought by the defense aimed at challenging the reliability of a key prosecution witness who said he had seen Knox and Sollecito by the house the night of the murder.
Knox and Sollecito, who both attended Saturday's hearing, insist they were at Sollecito's house. Their defense teams have argued that the witness' recollection of the scene — including remembering buses taking students to clubs and discos the night of Nov. 1, a holiday in Italy — is not credible, and have called people who operate buses and discos in the area to testify.
Prosecutors have called that crucial witness, Antonio Curatolo, to testify again, and two others on the same issue. Curatolo, a homeless man, has in the meantime been ordered to stand trial on an unrelated drug charge — an accusation that, according to the Knox defense, further damages his credibility.
The next hearing is on March 12. Knox's stepfather, Chris Mellas, who arrived in Perugia just days ago, said Knox was "doing well and is happy it's going her way" — but is also "apprehensive."
"In the first trial a lot of things were good but she is still in prison," Mellas said. "Nothing is good — it's just better than bad."
Knox, 23, and Sollecito, 26, have been behind bars since November 2007.