By Deepa Babington
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian judge who presided over Amanda Knox's murder appeal has told local media the American student may have been guilty but had to be acquitted because of doubts over evidence linking her to the killing of Meredith Kercher in 2007.
Knox, 24, flew home to a hero's welcome in Seattle on the U.S. west coast on Tuesday after an appeals court in the Italian city of Perugia overturned her 2009 conviction for the murder of her British roommate.
"They're free for not having committed the crime," Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann told the daily La Stampa.
"But this is the truth in court, not the real truth. And that could be different."
He told the daily Corriere della Sera: "They could have been responsible but there is no proof. Perhaps they knew what happened that night. We do not know."
Hellmann was one of an eight-member panel of lay and professional judges who on Monday acquitted Knox and her Italian ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, of the murder.
The acquittal raised more questions than answers about who committed the crime, and prosecutors have said they will appeal to reverse the verdict.
Rudy Guede, an Ivorian drifter who was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in a separate trial, is now the only person serving time for the murder, although prosecutors say he could not have killed Kercher by himself.
Her half-naked body was found with over 40 wounds and a deep gash in the throat, and prosecutors say the lack of signs of struggle on her body show her assailants pinned her down while another stabbed her in the neck.
"Certainly Rudy knows what happened and hasn't said it," Hellmann said. "Perhaps the other two defendants also know, because, I repeat, our decision to acquit was the result of truth determined by the trial."
A MYSTERY FOREVER?
Hellmann said a forensics review that cast doubt on police evidence that traces of DNA belonging to Kercher and Knox were found on a kitchen knife and Sollecito's DNA was on the victim's bra clasp was crucial in undermining the prosecution's case.
"The law says that a small doubt, as long as it is reasonable, is enough to acquit," he told La Stampa. "And we were coherent with our convictions."
A report by the panel of judges on the reasons behind the acquittal is due in the coming weeks.
Knox was initially sentenced to 26 years in prison and Sollecito to 25 years in a case that drew attention the world over.
In the United States, a massive public relations effort by the Seattle student's family aided her image and cast her as an innocent victim of a convoluted judicial system in a distant foreign country.
The grieving family of Kercher, a Leeds University student from Coulsdon, south of London, said after the acquittal that they felt they were "back to square one" and have asked who killed their beloved "Mez" if Knox and Sollecito were innocent.
Hellmann said that the family may never find out.
"Unfortunately the truth will remain unsolved, from the court process point of view," he told La Stampa. "We cannot find someone guilty without proof."
(Editing by Mark heinrich)