By Silvia Ognibene
FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - Italian Raffaele Sollecito was not a "puppy" who committed murder out of love for U.S. student Amanda Knox, his lawyer argued Thursday in her concluding defense to charges the pair murdered 21-year-old Meredith Kercher in 2007.
Sollecito, 29, and Knox, 26, were convicted in 2009 of killing the British student, whose half-naked body was found with more than 40 stab wounds and a deep gash in her throat in the apartment she shared with Knox in Perugia, a picturesque town where both were studying as exchange students.
The guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal, but Italy's highest court rejected that decision last year, ordering that the appeal trial be repeated.
Sollecito's defense lawyer Giulia Bongiorno rejected accusations that he was drawn into a crime by his fascination with Knox, who had been his girlfriend for only a matter of days when the murder took place.
"Raffaele was not a puppy. He wouldn't have killed for the love of Amanda," she told the court.
Bongiorno said investigators had invented a theory that Kercher was murdered in a sex game gone awry in order to avoid causing panic in Perugia over the truth that a dangerous murderer was still on the run.
But even after a different culprit had been found - Ivory Coast-born Rudy Guede who is serving a 16-year sentence for the 2007 murder - investigators kept returning to Knox and Sollecito, concocting an improbable story to "reconcile the irreconcilable" and implicate them.
"For some investigators, the first suspects are like first loves: never forgotten," Bongiorno said.
The verdict is set to be delivered on January 30, and a lawyer for the Kercher family said the victim's brother and sister, Lyle and Stephanie, would attend court to hear the decision.
Knox, who has been in the United States since her release after spending four years in an Italian prison, has not returned to Italy for the trial but sent an email to the court last month, pleading her innocence.
Sollecito told reporters he would stay in Italy for the remaining hearings.
The case could be appealed again by the prosecution or defense if either side is unhappy with the verdict, under Italy's three-strike trial system.
It is unclear if the United States would agree to extradite Knox to serve any sentence if she is found guilty.
Knox has appealed a standing slander conviction for falsely implicating Congolese bar owner Patrick Lumumba in the crime to the European Court of Human Rights, and could do the same if convicted of the murder.
(Corrects headline, dropping reference to Amanda Knox's lawyer)
(Writing by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Stephen Powell)