A Life Behind Bars

updated 12/21/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the two years since Amanda Knox was charged with murder, her family has proclaimed her innocence and brought all sorts of culinary treats to Capanne prison in Perugia, Italy—small comforts to ease her otherwise grim existence. "Amanda asks us to bring Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, ham and turkey, so she can cook in her cell," says her father, Curt. He marvels at how his daughter and her cell mates could "whip up tasty dishes with just a few bare essential ingredients."

Also on Knox's wish list in the care packages she can receive four times a month: clothes, books (only eight allowed at a time), magazines and enough money in her charge account to buy soap, shampoo and the like from the prison store.

But there's one item the family recently bought that the 22-year-old college student won't be using any time soon: a plane ticket home to Seattle. A few minutes past midnight on Dec. 5, after 13 hours of deliberation, an Italian jury found Knox guilty of the November 2007 slaying of her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, 21, and sentenced Knox to 26 years. The stunning outcome capped an 11-month trial that made headlines around the world and that the Italian press dubbed la prova del secolo—the trial of the century. For Knox and her family, however, the end was crushing. "She spent the whole night crying," says her attorney Luciano Ghirga, who has come to view Knox as a daughter. "But we will carry on our fight to free her."

From the early days of the police investigation—after Kercher was found in her blood-soaked bedroom, sexually assaulted and with her throat slashed—two wildly different portraits of Knox emerged. To Italian tabloids, she was "Foxy Knoxy," a pot-smoking, wanton adventurer who tried to force Kercher into a sex game with two other men that led to her slaying. But family and friends see Knox as a kindhearted honors student, a lover of languages and a rock-climbing enthusiast who got caught up in a foreign justice system she didn't understand.

Yet Knox's sometimes enigmatic behavior only helped fuel the fire. An exchange student from the University of Washington, Knox met Kercher in October 2007, when they shared a second-story apartment with another woman. "Amanda thought she was a lovely girl," her mother, Edda Mellas, said about Kercher. But just days after the murder, Knox told cops she'd spent that night at the apartment of then boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, 26, smoking marijuana and watching a movie—then changed her story several times before admitting to police, "My head is very confused." Cops subsequently charged her, Sollecito and a third man—a petty criminal named Rudy Guede—with murder. (Both men have also been convicted in the case.)

For the Kerchers, the verdict is long overdue—but their grief never ends. "We're the ones who have been given a life sentence," Kercher's mother, Arline, told London's Daily Mirror. "People say time heals, but it doesn't."

Knox plans to appeal her sentence, a process that could begin within a year. In the meantime she will try to make the most of her life in a two-bed cell that she shares with another American prisoner. Though restricted to the cell for 20 hours a day, Amanda keeps her body sharp by doing yoga and her mind sharp by polishing her Italian and German skills and pursuing her grandfather's passion for painting watercolors. She has also applied for a job in the prison laundry, and the University of Washington has said she might be able to continue her studies from prison.

Inside her tiny space is a desk, chair, television, shower, sink and a small storage space. "Amanda's storage space has some summer clothes," says Curt, "but mainly it contains the numerous support letters she has received on a daily basis from around the world." She also finds comfort in near-daily visits with the prison priest as well as family visits. (At least one family member has come on visiting days for two years.) Curt says that even some prison guards wept for his daughter and insists she will someday be cleared: "She is again looking with determination down the road. She is past her desolate and angry phase."

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