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 on Thursday as she concluded her defence 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 Italian town where both were studying as exchange students.
The guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal, but Italy's highest court rejected that ruling last year and ordered that the appeal trial be repeated.
Sollecito's defence 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 wrong in order to avoid causing panic in Perugia over the truth that a dangerous murderer was still on the run.
She also dramatically brandished a knife while saying that other knives were more likely to have been the murder weapons.
Bongiorno said that even after a different culprit had been found - Ivory Coast-born Rudy Guede who is serving a 16-year sentence for the 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," she 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 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.
She told an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica that if found guilty she would be "a fugitive".
Knox said she was less optimistic than Sollecito that they would be found not guilty, and that she hoped one day to be able to speak to Kercher's family to say that she was not involved in the murder.
In response, Kercher family lawyer Francesco Maresca said Knox should "just stand trial. She needs to stop making declarations."
Sollecito told reporters he would stay in Italy for the remaining hearings.
The case could be appealed again by the prosecution or defence 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 were 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. (Writing by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Hugh Lawson)