By Daniel Flynn
PERUGIA, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian court sentenced American student Amanda Knox to 26 years in prison Saturday for murdering her British roommate in a drunken sex game, in a case which has drawn huge interest in Italy and abroad.
After an 11-month trial in the Italian university town of Perugia, Knox, 22, was jailed for the murder and sexual assault of British student Meredith Kercher. Knox's Italian ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, 25, received a 25-year sentence for his part in the November 2007 killing.
Knox burst into tears and hugged her lawyer as a judge read the verdict to a court packed with media, many from the United States and Britain. An impassive Sollecito turned and looked at his family as his stepmother shouted: "Be strong, Raffaele!"
Lawyers for Knox and Sollecito said they would appeal.
"There is contradiction between the weakness of the proof and the gravity of the crime," Knox's lawyer Luciano Ghirga told journalists on the steps of the courthouse. "This was a crime with no motive ... Amanda is desperate."
Asked if he would fight on, Knox's father Curt replied: "Hell yes."
Both Knox and Sollecito have maintained their innocence. Knox told the court during closing arguments Thursday she was "afraid of having the mask of a murderer forced upon me."
The American student, from Seattle, was accused of masterminding the killing of 21-year-old Kercher, who was found semi-naked with her throat slit in the bedroom of her apartment in Perugia, where she was doing a year of overseas study.
Prosecutors alleged small traces of DNA matching Kercher's were found on the blade of a knife, washed with bleach, at Sollecito's home. The defense said the knife did not match Kercher's wounds and that the DNA evidence was too small to be conclusive and might have been contaminated.
Prosecutors sought life terms for Knox and Sollecito, but a jury handed them lesser sentences after 14 hours of deliberation because they were young and had no criminal records. After the verdict, they were whisked from court in police vans to the prison where they have spent the past two years.
A lawyer for the Kercher family, from Coulsdon in southeast England, welcomed the sentence.
"With tonight's verdict, justice has been done for the tragedy which struck the Kercher family. They are satisfied," Francesco Maresca told reporters. "These are severe sentences for young people, so it is a tragedy for all concerned."
Rudy Guede, an Ivorian drifter with a criminal record, was sentenced in October 2008 to 30 years in jail for taking part in Kercher's murder. Guede, arrested in Germany after fleeing the country, is appealing against the verdict.
Guede's DNA was found on Kercher's body and he has admitted he was in the house at the time of the killing and had sexual relations with Kercher. However, he pointed the finger at Sollecito and Knox, whom he said he heard arguing with the Briton while he was in the bathroom, followed by a scream.
Prosecutors accused Knox of persuading Guede and Sollecito to take part in an extreme sex game involving Kercher, which turned violent. They said Knox was furious at Kercher's criticism of her lack of cleanliness and her promiscuity.
In her defense, Knox said she and Sollecito had watched a film at his home that evening, smoked marijuana and had sex. Sollecito had originally said he could not remember if Knox was at his home, but later said she was.
The American was also convicted of slandering bar owner Patrick Lumumba whom she said had been at the scene of the crime. Lumumba was briefly arrested but then cleared.
(Additional reporting by Maurizio Troccoli; Writing by Deepa Babington; editing by Janet Lawrence)