By Maurizio Troccoli
PERUGIA, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian court has allowed new evidence in the trial for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, in a boost for American defendant Amanda Knox and her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito.
Knox, 23, and Sollecito are appealing against prison sentences of 26 and 25 years respectively for their role in the killing, which prosecutors say was the result of an extreme sex game that turned violent.
Twenty-one-year-old Kercher was found half-naked and with her throat slit in a flat she shared with Knox in the university city of Perugia, on November 2, 2007.
In an unusual move, the Perugia court said on Saturday it would hear new witnesses and also new expert evidence concerning the knife allegedly used as the murder weapon.
"After three years we've had our first big victory," said Sollecito's lawyer Luca Maori. Knox and Sollecito broke down in tears when the decision was announced.
The court said it would hear an American scientist for the defense, who will produce evidence aiming to show quantities of DNA found on the knife are too small to be reliable.
An important element in the first verdict, in December 2009, were biological traces from Knox, found on the handle of the knife, and from Kercher, found on the blade.
The court said it would also hear new evidence regarding a bra clip belonging to Kercher that was found to have traces of Sollecito's DNA, but which the defense says was "contaminated" in the 45 days between the murder date and the time the clip was found.
New witnesses will also be heard who, according to the defense, will undermine a key prosecution witness who said he saw Knox and Sollecito a few meters from Kercher's flat on the night of the murder.
The prosecution witness, homeless Antonio Curatolo, said he saw the defendants in a car park where coaches were taking students to a local disco. The defense has now produced the owner of the disco who says it was closed that evening.
Saturday's court decision means the appeal trial is sure to go on for longer than anticipated. The judge extended by 90 days, to September 2011, the period for which the defendants will definitely remain in custody pending the verdict.
The case has attracted huge media attention in Italy and abroad, with family and friends of Knox, and some U.S. media saying her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
A third defendant, Rudy Guede, originally from the Ivory Coast, on Thursday was sentenced definitively to 16 years in jail for his role in the murder.
(Writing by Gavin Jones)