A jubilant Amanda Knox was cleared of murder charges today by an Italian appeals court, ending her four-year prison ordeal and clearing the way for the American student to return home to Seattle.

The tension of the moment was so acute and full of dread for Knox that she looked pale and physically ill when she was brought into the courtroom for the verdict. A female member of her legal team knelt next to Knox to comfort her.

Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted in December 2009 of killing Meredith Kercher in a 2007 attack that left the British exchange student partially nude and bleeding to death from a slashed throat.

Knox, 24, and Sollecito, 27, have spent the last four years in an Italian prison and faced the prospect of a life sentence depending on the appeals court ruling.

Knox’s family has been a constant presence at the nearly year-long hearings, but Kercher’s family has stayed away. The Kerchers arrived today to hear the verdict.

The court’s six jurors and two judges deliberated for hours after listening in the morning to impassioned pleas by Knox and Sollecito to throw out the guilty verdict and set them free.

Knox struggled through tears and, at times, a shaking voice, as she addressed the court in Italian.

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