Few international criminal cases have stirred national passions as strongly as that of American student Amanda Knox, waiting half a world away for her third Italian court verdict in the 2007 slaying of her British roommate, 21-year-old Meredith Kercher.
Whatever is decided this week, the protracted legal battle that has grabbed global headlines and polarised trial-watchers in three nations probably won't end in Florence.
The first two trials produced flip-flop verdicts of guilty then innocent for Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and the case has produced harshly clashing versions of events.
A Florence appeals panel designated by Italy's supreme court to address issues it raised about the acquittal was set to deliberate Thursday (overnight NZT), with a verdict expected later in the day (Friday NZT).
Much of the attention has focused on Knox, 26, who has remained in Seattle during this trial, citing her fear of "the universal problem of wrongful conviction," according to an e-mailed statement she sent to the Florence court.
Her representatives say she is concentrating on her studies at the University of Washington.
"We wait for the verdict, and remain hopeful," Knox's US lawyer, Theodore Simon, said by telephone from Philadelphia.
"But history being our guide, we know Amanda can be convicted and it is very disconcerting to her and her family. The logical position is that there is no evidence."
Knox was arrested four days after Kercher's half-naked body was discovered November 2, 2007 in her bedroom in the university town of Perugia.
Knox has been portrayed both as a she-devil bent on sexual adventure and as a naif caught up in Italy's Byzantine justice system.
US commentators have accused the Italian judicial system of a case of misapplied justice and double jeopardy, while Italians and British observers have jumped on the image encoded in the US defendant's pre-trial moniker, ''foxy Knoxy."
"I don't remember any case which has been as highly publicised and where the countries have taken sides," noted defence attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has written about the case.
"I think it's fair to say that the vast number of Americans think she is innocent and a substantial number of Italians think she is guilty," he said in a telephone interview.
The courts have cast wildly different versions of events. Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder and sexual assault in the first trial based on DNA evidence, confused alibis and Knox's false accusation against a Congolese bar owner, for which she was also convicted of slander.
Then an appeals court in Perugia dismantled the murder verdicts, criticising the ''building blocks" of the conviction, including DNA evidence deemed unreliable by new experts, and lack of motive.
That acquittal was scathingly vacated last spring by Italy's highest court, which ordered a new appeals trial to examine evidence and hear testimony it said had been improperly omitted by the Perugia appeals court, and to redress what it identified as lapses in logic.
In this trial, Judge Alessandro Nencini ordered an analysis of a tiny trace of DNA on the presumed murder weapon, a knife found in Sollecito's kitchen.
In the first trial, DNA traces on the blade linked to Kercher and one on the handle linked to Knox were key to the conviction. But the appeals court trial placed the DNA findings in doubt.
The new trace tested in Florence belonged to Knox and not to the victim.
The defence argued that this was further proof that Knox had merely used the kitchen knife for domestic chores in Sollecito's apartment.
The prosecution, which has continued to argue the validity Kercher's DNA trace on the blade from the original trial, said the additional trace once again put the knife in Knox's hands.
The real novelty of the Florence hearings was that the new prosecutor, Alessandro Crini, redefined the motive, moving away from the drug-fueled erotic game described by his colleagues in Perugia.
He contended that the outburst of violence was rooted in arguments between roommates Knox and Kercher about cleanliness and triggered by a toilet left unflushed by Rudy Hermann Guede, the only person now in jail for the murder.
Crini has demanded sentences of 26 years on the murder charge for Knox and Sollecito.
A guilty verdict would need to be confirmed by Italy's supreme court, which could take a year or more and, in theory, result in yet another appeals court trial.
For Sollecito, who has said he will be in Italy but not in court on Thursday, a guilty verdict could mean immediate arrest, house arrest or passport seizure. For Knox, the situation is more complicated.
Legal experts agree that it is unlikely that Italy would seek extradition until there is a final verdict.
Still, Markus Witig, a trial lawyer in Milan with expertise in extraditions, said Italy could - but probably would not - seek immediate extradition on grounds of urgency, which could include the risk a defendant would disappear.
Dershowitz believes double jeopardy would not be an issue because Knox's acquittal was not a final judgment. He also doubts that the United States would want to set a precedent by refusing to extradite her if she is convicted, given that the United States makes frequent extradition requests for defendants sought by US courts.
"The easiest thing for the court to do is acquit. It probably ends it there. If it is a conviction, it is just the beginning of what would be a very lengthy and difficult process," Dershowitz said.
Kercher's family, which has a legal team aiding the prosecution, remains persuaded that Knox and Sollecito were responsible for Kercher's death along with Guede, an Ivory Coast native and small-time drug dealer, who is serving a 16-year sentence. Kercher's sister Stephanie and perhaps one of her brothers is expected to attend the verdict, said Francesco Maresca, one of the family's lawyers.
''This trial is a tragedy for everyone," said Vieri Fabiani, one of the lawyers representing Kercher's family. ''For these kids, for the poor girl who isn't here anymore. And for those who went beyond what could have been their intent."
AMANDA KNOX TIMELINE:
- November 2, 2007: Kercher, 21, is found dead in Perugia apartment. Investigators say she was killed the night before.
- November 6, 2007: Knox is arrested with then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and Diya "Patrick" Lumumba, Congolese owner of pub where Knox occasionally worked.
- November 20, 2007: Lumumba, implicated by Knox, is released for lack of evidence.
- December 6, 2007: Ivory Coast national Rudy Hermann Guede is extradited from Germany.
- October 28, 2008: Judge indicts Knox and Sollecito on charges of murder and sexual assault. Guede, in a fast-track trial, is convicted of murder and sexual assault and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
- December 4, 2009: Court finds Knox guilty of murder, sexual assault and slander; sentences her to 26 years in prison. Sollecito is convicted of murder and sexual assault, sentenced to 25 years.
- December 22, 2009: Appeals court upholds Guede conviction, cuts sentence to 16 years.
- November 24, 2010: Appeals trial for Knox and Sollecito opens in Perugia.
- June 29, 2011: Independent forensic report ordered by the appeals court finds much of the DNA evidence used to convict Knox and Sollecito is unreliable.
- October 3, 2011: Appeals court clears Knox, Sollecito of murder conviction, orders them freed immediately.
- March 26, 2013: Italy's highest court overturns the acquittal, orders a new appeals trial.
- September 30, 2013: Florence appeals court opens third trial of Knox and Sollecito.
- January 30, 2014: Florence appellate panel scheduled to begin deliberations.