By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's justice minister ordered an investigation on Monday into comments to the media by the judge who reinstated murder convictions for U.S. student Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito.
Alessandro Nencini, who last Thursday sentenced Knox to 28 years and six months and Italian Sollecito to 25 years in jail for the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher, spoke to several Italian newspapers the morning after the verdict.
Sollecito's lawyers said the comments showed the judge had been biased against their client and had violated the legal maxim that jury deliberations remain secret. They asked Italy's judicial governing body to consider disciplinary action and queried whether the court's decision was still valid.
Nencini's comments were made before the court issued its full judgment, the 'motivations' that in Italy are published within 90 days of a verdict, explaining how the court reached its decision. But he appeared to hint at what the document would contain.
He indicated that Sollecito's decision not to be questioned in court might have influenced the decision, described how the jurors asked him to clarify things they had seen about the case on television, and said the crime happened in "a night between young people" when "no one had anything to do".
Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri ordered an "initial investigation" into the comments. Nencini defended himself in further comments to press, saying he had spoken off-the-cuff and had not intended to appraise the strategy of the defense.
The trial process to find those responsible for killing Kercher, found stabbed to death aged 21 in the apartment she shared with Knox in the town of Perugia where both were exchange students, has stretched on for six years and has divided opinion in Italy, Britain and the United States.
Commonly viewed as a villain in Italy, Knox is widely seen in the United States as the victim of a faulty justice system. Views in Kercher's country, Britain, are mixed and her family said last week they may never know the truth about her death.
It is not the first time the trial process has been accused of missteps. Defense lawyers in the appeal said police had botched the initial investigation.
First convicted in 2009, Sollecito and Knox were cleared on appeal, but Italy's highest court ordered a retrial due to what it said were inconsistencies in the acquittal.
The latest appeal reinstated the initial convictions, but will not be final unless it is confirmed by the highest court in the final phase of Italy's three-level justice system.
Sollecito's passport has been confiscated but he is free to travel within Italy pending a definitive sentence.
Knox has remained in her hometown of Seattle since being freed in 2011 after almost four years in jail, and would have to be extradited to serve any sentence.
One person is already in jail for the crime: Ivory Coast-born Rudy Guede, who is serving a 16-year sentence for the murder and sexual abuse of Kercher. Judges ruled he did not act alone.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)