Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox
02/06/2014 at 08:00 AM EST
, emotionally drained and still shaken by the news that he and Amanda Knox were convicted again
of the 2007 murder of Knox's roommate Meredith Kercher, tells PEOPLE he has "no regrets" about returning to Italy to attend the trial.
"I have nothing to hide," says Sollecito, who returned from the Dominican Republic to attend the legal proceedings and now faces 26 years in prison. "Almost everyone I knew said not to come back, but I made this choice over a year ago with honesty and courage. I wanted to face this … this incredible injustice."
Knox, 26, and Sollecito, 29, who have both maintained their innocence, spent four years in prison before a higher court voided their earlier conviction in 2011. The case was returned to the appellate level, and Knox and Sollecito were convicted again on Jan. 30.
Knox got 28½ years, but it is unclear if she will be forced to return to Italy, since U.S. law prohibits a person from being tried twice on the same charge.
"The Italian prosecutors manufactured a case against Ms. Knox based on innuendo, rank speculation and outrageous inferences drawn from her conduct," says John Q. Kelly, Sollecito's U.S. attorney. "Raffaele is collateral damage. His only crimes are honesty and integrity, refusing to assist in a witch hunt in exchange for his freedom."
Sollecito didn't attend the reading of the court's verdict, he says, because he "was confident of a good outcome." Instead he drove to northern Italy to "celebrate" with his girlfriend what he believed would be an acquittal. The couple traveled to nearby Austria but drove back to Italy when they heard the news on the radio. Officials quickly took Sollecito's passport
and ordered him not to leave the country.
"This has all been very difficult for me," he says. "I thought I had put it all behind me … but it's not going away."
Sollecito and Knox spoke before the verdict "to support one another." But he says he has no current plans to reach out to his one-time girlfriend. "At this point," he says, "I just want to be with people who are really close to me, people who are important in my life."
Under Italian law, Knox and Sollecito are presumed innocent until Italy's Supreme Court hears their appeal, which could take another year. A third person, Rudy Guede of the Ivory Coast, was convicted of Kercher's murder in a separate trial and is serving 16 years in prison.
For more about the case, including an exclusive interview with Amanda Knox, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE