A tearful Knox tells Italian court: 'I'm innocent'

Being in prison is "very frustrating and mentally exhausting," a tearful Amanda Knox said Saturday, insisting she is innocent of murdering her roommate and does not want to spend the rest of her life behind bars.

The former exchange student was emotional as she briefly addressed the appeals court in Perugia, her voice breaking at times. The 23-year-old American is appealing her 2009 conviction for sexually assaulting and murdering British student Meredith Kercher, for which she received 26 years in prison.

The appeals court on Saturday set June 30 as a deadline for a key review of DNA evidence by independent forensic experts in the Knox case and allowed five new witnesses sought by the defense — all inmates in Italian prisons who claim they have information clearing Knox and her Italian co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito.

"I've spent more than three and a half years in prison as an innocent person, and this for me is very frustrating and mentally exhausting," Knox said. "But nothing is more important that finding the truth after prejudices and many mistakes."

"I don't want to spend my whole life in prison as an innocent," she added.

Knox and Sollecito were arrested Nov. 6, 2007, a few days after Kercher's body, her throat slit, was found in the apartment that she and Knox shared in Perugia. Sollecito, Knox's boyfriend at the time, was convicted of the same charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The two have always denied wrongdoing, and much hinges on the review of DNA evidence used to convict them.

The independent experts are looking at DNA traces on two pieces of evidence that allegedly linked the defendants to the crime: a kitchen knife believed to be the murder weapon, and the clasp of Kercher's bra.

Prosecutors said in the first trial that Knox's DNA was found on the knife's handle, Kercher's DNA was found on the blade, and Sollecito's DNA was found on the clasp of Kercher's bra. The defense says those DNA traces were inconclusive and might have been contaminated when they were collected and analyzed.

The two court-appointed experts could not retest the tiny traces of DNA and are now assessing the reliability of the tests that were originally conducted.

After obtaining a 40-day delay to collect all the documents, the experts from La Sapienza University will finish their report June 30 and describe their findings to the court in a crucial hearing July 25.

The appeals trial will continue June 18 with the new testimony.

The new witnesses include a convict held in the same prison as Rudy Hermann Guede, an Ivorian man who has also been convicted of killing Kercher in separate proceedings. Mario Alessi, a convicted child murderer, claimed that Guede had told him that Knox and Sollecito weren't at the scene the night of the murder and had nothing to do with Kercher's death. This has been denied by Guede himself.

Three witnesses were called to back up Alessi's claim.

In addition, Luciano Aviello, a Mafia turncoat currently serving time in prison, will testify about his claim that his brother, a fugitive from justice, had killed Kercher as he was robbing apartments in the neighborhood.

In another odd twist, the tribunal also discussed a three-page handwritten document dated May 6 that was sent to the court and to Knox's defense by yet another inmate, Tommaso Pace. The presiding judge said Pace, who gave yet another version of Kercher's killing in his letter, might be heard later in the appeal.

Knox's remarks were the highlight of a hearing largely dedicated to paving the way for the trial to go on. The American smiled politely as she entered the courtroom. Her father Curt Knox said she was disappointed at having to wait for the DNA review, but also was ready to wait "whatever it takes for a fully vetted response" by the forensic experts.

A verdict by the appeals court is expected after the summer.