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Doubts about guilt made Amanda Knox role hard for Panettiere

‘AMANDA KNOX: murder on trial in italy’ ★★★

8 to 10 tonight on Lifetime

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The prosecution sees her as “Foxy Knoxy,” a thrill-seeking party girl who helped murder her roommate.

The defense sees her as an angel-faced innocent, wrongly imprisoned in a foreign country.

Hayden Panettiere had the challenge of playing both in Lifetime’s movie “Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy.”

“When you get down to it, when you look at the facts of both sides of the case, it’s hard to have an opinion,” says the former “Heroes” star. “Things just don’t add up.”

Knox’s English roommate, Mere­dith Kercher, was stabbed and sexually assaulted in 2007 in the flat she shared with Knox in Perugia, Italy. DNA evidence convicted a drifter named Rudy Guede for the murder. But Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, also were sentenced in the case to 25-plus years in prison.

The Lifetime movie has angered just about everyone involved — Kercher’s family, Knox’s family and lawyers in each country. Knox, now 23, is in the midst of appealing her conviction.

“The movie is balanced,” says Panettiere. “Amanda is so convincing about her innocence. You believe her. And then you see the prosecutor’s side, and that he wholeheartedly believes in his conviction.”

More disturbing than any of the physical evidence used against Knox (a bloody footprint; blood mixed with Kercher’s) was her reaction. Waiting to be interviewed by police, Knox turned cartwheels in the hallway. She was spotted buying sexy underwear two days later with her boyfriend.

“I always gave her the benefit of the doubt,” says Panettiere. “You can’t convict someone as a murderer because of that. And it doesn’t mean they’re jumping for joy up and down and celebrating someone’s death. Maybe it’s just a quirk in someone’s personality.”

After lengthy questioning (and alleged abuse), Knox finally told police she had a “vision” that she was in the kitchen when a local bar owner, Patrick Lumumba, killed Kercher. Lumumba has since been exonerated.

Misguided or not, Italian police seemed bent on “making an example” of Knox, says Panettiere. “They went so far as to tell Amanda she was HIV-positive. They asked her to list all of her sexual partners, and leaked it to the press. Then they told her the results were a false positive.”

Making a movie about the case is sensationalistic by definition — and this one originally contained a scene of Knox, Guede and Sollecito pinning down Kercher and stabbing her. As a concession to the upset families, Lifetime has removed the hypothetical flashback.

But it’s also humanizing. Marcia Gay Hardin plays Knox’s mom, and we see “Angel Face” not just as an attention-getting headline, but as a young girl caught up in a nightmare.

Panettiere takes a tricky role and does it, at least, some justice. At any moment, her Knox could be interpreted as friendly and naive, or detached and . . . off.

Victim Kercher comes alive for us, too, as actress Amanda Fernando Stevens reminds us that Kercher was a person, not a symbol.

As with any other documentation of this case, you’ll come away from the movie more informed — but more confused — than before. You may be intrigued enough to watch the documentary following the movie, “Beyond the Headlines.”

“You’ve got these three people in jail for the rest of their lives for this crime, and yet none of them have turned and pointed a finger at each other,” says Panettiere. “Still.”

Panettiere didn’t meet Knox before filming; Knox gets only two visiting days a week for family and legal counsel. But Panettiere wouldn’t pass up the chance.

“Even if she was guilty,” the actress says, “she’s obviously convinced herself that she’s not.”

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