NEW YORK — When Amanda Knox and her family landed home in Seattle yesterday, it was the culmination of an exhaustive four-year legal, lobbying, and public relations effort that ultimately succeeded when an Italian court overturned her murder conviction and freed her from prison.
The Knox family hired a public relations company specializing in crisis management soon after Knox was arrested in 2007 during her junior year abroad in Perugia, accused along with two men of killing her housemate, Meredith Kercher, during a sexual attack. Volunteers - including parents of Knox’s classmates at Seattle Prep, a school run by Jesuits - created a website that posted wholesome family snapshots of Knox. It was all part of an effort to counter her portrayal by prosecutors and in the European press as a “she-devil.’’ At one point a Seattle judge was admonished for using court stationery to write to Italian officials on her behalf. And Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, championed her case, reaching out to US and Italian officials.
In some respects, her supporters had their work cut out for them. The crime Knox had been accused and eventually convicted of was lurid, her statements to the police were inconsistent, and DNA evidence presented at trial seemed to link her to the brutal crime. Her case brought international notoriety to Knox. The British tabloids took to calling her “Foxy Knoxy,’’ adopting a nickname she had used herself on her Facebook and MySpace pages. (Her family said later that the nickname referred to her soccer skills, not her love life.)
But by the time she was freed from an Italian prison Monday, her public portrayal was very different: Many media accounts in the United States, at least, portrayed Knox as a nice young woman on her junior year abroad who had fallen victim to the Italian justice system.
Knox was overcome with emotion yesterday in Seattle. “Thank you for being there for me,’’ she tearfully told her supporters in front of a crowd of reporters from two continents.
After arriving at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Knox held her mother’s hand as her lawyer, Theodore Simon, said her acquittal “unmistakably announced to the world’’ that she was not responsible for the killing of Meredith Kercher.
After her parents offered their thanks to Knox’s lawyers and supporters, Knox spoke briefly, saying, “They’re reminding me to speak in English, because I’m having problems with that.’’
“Thank you to everyone who’s believed in me, who has defended me, who has supported my family,’’ she said. “My family’s the most important thing to me so I just want to be with them.’’
No one can say for sure whether the painstaking and calculated rehabilitation of her image helped sway the Italian courts. Ultimately, it was an official report casting doubt on the DNA evidence in the case that led to her exoneration. But the media frenzy was mentioned by both the prosecution and the defense last month in court. One of the prosecutors, Giuliano Mignini, complained in court of “the media’s morbid exaltation’’ of Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, who had also been convicted of the murder, along with a second man, Rudy Guede.
“This lobbying, this media and political circus, this heavy interference, forget all of it!’’ he told the court, according to the Associated Press.
Knox’s lawyers countered that their client had been “crucified’’ in the media.
The appeals court that overturned the convictions of Knox and Sollecito upheld Knox’s conviction on a charge of defamation for accusing the bar owner she had worked for, Diya Lumumba, of committing the killing — leading him to be jailed and then released. (She later said that the police had pressured her to accuse him.)
The murder conviction of the third defendant, Guede, in a separate trial, was upheld on appeal.
At least one banner welcoming Knox home was seen yesterday in her neighborhood — despite a request from her parents not to put up any, out of respect for Kercher, the victim whose family was shellshocked by the turnaround in the case.
The effort to shape Knox’s image began soon after her arrest in 2007. Her father, Curt Knox, was put in touch with Gogerty Marriott, a Seattle public affairs firm, by a colleague at Macy’s, where he was a vice president at the time. The family wanted help dealing with the barrage of media calls, but at first it was constrained in what it could say.
“It was because, primarily, Amanda’s lawyers in Italy really did not want them doing interviews initially,’’ said David Marriott, a veteran public affairs man who handled the case.
In the beginning, he said, he asked some of Knox’s college friends to give interviews to testify about her character.
But some family, friends, and neighbors were growing concerned that her image was being shaped by British tabloids and Italian prosecutors. A group of volunteers called Friends of Amanda formed, and a few months later they it had put up its website. It countered the lurid portrayal of Knox with pictures of her in a hat at her seventh birthday party and, more recently, playing with her dog, Ralphy.
“What we saw happening, early on, was this tremendous deluge of negative things being said about her that we knew were flat-out wrong,’’ said Tom Wright, 58, who helped form the group because his daughter, Sara, attended school with Knox.
Michael Heavey, a neighbor of Knox’s who is a superior court judge in Seattle, said that he spoke about the case to Cantwell, a friend of his. When Knox was convicted in 2009, Cantwell issued a statement saying in part, “I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial.’’
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.