By Laura Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Supporters of Amanda Knox hugged, cheered and cried at a Seattle hotel on Monday as the 24-year-old former University of Washington student was cleared of murder by an Italian court and ordered freed from prison.

An appellate jury in Perugia, Italy on Monday overturned the 2009 murder convictions of Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in the death of Knox's housemate, 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher.

About a dozen friends and defenders of Knox who had gathered in a downtown Seattle hotel room to watch the Italian court proceedings on a big-screen television, erupted into shouts of joy as it became clear that she would be released.

"Way to go, kid," said Tom Wright, a Knox family friend of 15 years who had helped organized the event, his voice breaking with emotion. "We freakin' beat 'em, man," he added.

Seattle native Knox and Sollecito, 27, were both set free on Monday after nearly four years behind bars for a crime they have long denied committing.

Knox, who had originally been sentenced to 26 years in prison, was led away in tears and close to collapse following the verdict in a packed Perugia courtroom.

She was thought to be headed back to Seattle, following a brief return to the prison to collect her belongings, as soon as a flight could be arranged.

John Lange, who taught Knox's high school drama class at Seattle Preparatory School, wiped away tears with a tissue.

"It's all good, I'm hugely relieved," Lange said, describing Knox, who attended the school for four years before graduating in 2005, as sweet.

"When I knew her she was kind, hard-working and a team player. There was not a mean bone in her body," he said.

"Seattle Prep is grateful to the Italian judiciary for its courage in reversing the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox for the murder of Meredith Kercher and joyfully awaits Amanda's return to Seattle," the school said in a written statement.

"While we are delighted that Amanda will be rejoining her family, we remain mindful that the Kercher family continues to mourn the loss of their beloved daughter and our thoughts and prayers are with them," the school said.

Mark Waterbury, author of 'Monster of Perugia, the Framing of Amanda Knox,' was also at the hotel for the verdict.

"There was no evidence, It was a corrupt prosecution," Waterbury said. "I want to know what charges will be brought against the dozen police officers."

Meanwhile King County Executive Dow Constantine called the verdict a "dramatic vindication" for Knox and her family.

"I cannot be more pleased at this emotional outcome in the Italian court," Constantine said in a written statement. "Her family has been unrelenting in their pursuit of justice. After so much agony, their four-year ordeal can now come to an end."

(Additional reporting by Nicole Neroulias; Editing by Greg McCune)