Published: Dec 11, 2010 6:54 PM EST
Updated: Dec 11, 2010 3:54 PM EST

PERUGIA, Italy (AP) - Convicted murderer Amanda Knox broke into tears Saturday as she made an emotional address to an appeals court in Italy, saying she was the innocent victim of an "enormous mistake" and that her life had been "broken" by three years in jail.

In her address to the court, the 23-year-old American reached out for the first time to the family of Meredith Kercher, the British girl she was convicted of killing and sexually assaulting in 2007 when they were roommates on a student exchange program in Perugia.

Knox denied being the "dangerous, diabolical, jealous, uncaring, violent" person described by the prosecution.

Last year, Knox was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Also convicted of the same charges was Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian who is Knox's former boyfriend. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Both deny wrongdoing, and have appealed the verdict.

The appeals trial formally opened last month but that hearing was immediately adjourned. With Saturday's hearing, the new proceedings got into full swing.

"I am innocent. Raffaele is innocent. We did not kill Meredith," Knox said during her 20-minute address, speaking Italian, and her voice breaking. "It doesn't' do justice to Meredith and her loved ones to take our lives from us."

Silence fell on the courtroom as Knox started speaking, with her stepfather Chris Mellas and her university friend Madison Paxton in attendance. Paxton, who was crying during her friend's speech, said later she had never been "so proud of anybody in my life."

Knox had addressed the court in the previous trial but never for as long or as passionately. She said she regretted not being able to fully speak her mind before, saying that words don't come easily to her and that she has a difficult time standing up for herself.

In the United States, the coverage of the case has been largely favorable to the American and critical of the Italian handling of the case. Some raised doubts over the investigation and the collecting of forensic evidence allegedly linking Knox and Sollecito to the crime.

"I stand here more scared than ever, not because I am or I have ever been afraid of the truth," she said, "but because the truth has not been recognized."

She was in tears as she said she thinks of Kercher as a dear friend she is "grateful and honored" to have met.

In the previous trial, Knox had described Kercher as a friend whose death had shocked her. On Saturday, she turned her thoughts to the victim's family.

"I'm very sorry Meredith is no longer living," a tearful Knox said. "I too have little sisters and the idea of their suffering, their loss, terrifies me."

"What you are going through, and what Meredith was subjected to, is incomprehensible and unacceptable," she said. "You are not alone as you remember her. ... My heart is shattered for all of you."

Kercher's family did not attend. Their lawyer, Francesco Maresca, left the courtroom as Knox spoke, saying later that he "didn't want to have to listen to these statements, which came too late, are inappropriate, devoid of any significance and only intended (to impress) the appeals court."

The victim's father, John Kercher, recently wrote a piece in Britain's Daily Mail lamenting the fact that "since that act of horrific violence, Knox, it seems, has been accorded the status of a minor celebrity."

Kercher wrote that Knox's parents "have never expressed their condolences to our family for our grievous loss."

"There has been no letter of sympathy; no word of regret," he wrote. "Instead, I have watched them repeatedly reiterate the mantra of their daughter's innocence."

Knox said her initial incarceration was expecially difficult.

"I was in prison, my photo was everywhere." She lamented what she said were "insidious, unjust, mean" reports about her private life. While the American press has largely been sympathetic to Knox, reports in Britain and Italy have often described her as a devious, manipulative woman.

"I can never get used to this broken life," she said. "I still don't know how to face all this, except than to be myself."

Knox has been behind bars since November 2007, a few days after Kercher's body, her throat slit, was found in the apartment she and Knox shared.

Knox had discussed the possibilty of addressing the court with her stepfather and friend visiting her in prison, they said.

"It's always very stressful for her to speak in court, it's difficult," Mellas told The Associated Press. "But she needed to express her position." Paxton said Knox was "scared" about her address because she's "out of her comfort zone" and doesn't like being in the spotlight.

In its December ruling, the court said that on the night of the murder Knox and Sollecito were at the house with a fourth person, Rudy Hermann Guede, an Ivory Coast citizen who has also been convicted of murder in separate proceedings. The court said Knox and Sollecito assisted Guede's sexual desire for Kercher, becoming her brutal assailants together with the Ivorian man and ultimately killing the 21-year-old when she resisted the sexual approach.

"How is it possible that I should have jumped at the opportunity to hurt my friend?" Knox asked the court Saturday. "That girl is not me."

At the appeals trial, the defense lawyers for Knox and Sollecito are seeking a full review on the forensic evidence, including disputed DNA evidence that was found on a knife allegedly used in the murder and on the clasp of Kercher's bra.

The defense maintains the DNA traces were inconclusive, and asserted that they may have been contaminated when they were analyzed. They also want new testimony to be heard.

The court is expected to rule on these requests at the next hearing, Dec. 18.

The prosecutors, who had sought life sentences, are also appealing the ruling, as they can in Italy.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)