The Italian is finally a free man after last week's court verdict

By Michele Corriston
Updated March 30, 2015 03:05 PM
Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP

More than seven years after he was arrested for the murder of ex-girlfriend Amanda Knox‘s roommate, Raffaele Sollecito has finally cleared his name.

Now, he tells PEOPLE, the “nightmare” is over – though he may never be the same.

“At times, I realize that I do not yet feel a complete sense of freedom,” he says. “I was trapped in this for so long that now I won’t be able to switch back to how my life was before. Part of me will never be the same. Part of me is destroyed.”

On Friday, Italy’s Supreme Court annulled the guilty sentencing of Sollecito, 31, and Knox, 27, in the 2007 killing of British student Meredith Kercher.

It was the end to a long legal battle; the two were imprisoned in Italy for four years before winning an appeal in 2011. The Supreme Court overturned that appeal and sent the case to retrial. Sollecito and Knox were then found guilty again by a second appellate court before Friday’s decision, which put a definitive end to the case. (Rudy Guede, who was tied to the crime scene by forensic evidence, was convicted separately and remains in prison.)

Last week’s ruling came as a complete surprise to Sollecito, who was at his parents’ house when his lawyer broke the good news.

“Our entire family has gathered, and there was a frenzy of happiness and shouts, screams of joy. At a certain point, I was so overwhelmed that I had a moment that I did not realize where I actually was,” he says. “Out of all the possible outcomes of the case, this was just a far glimmer of hope. It was really the remotest of chances. We were preparing, in the best-case scenario, to go back for a retrial.”

That night, Knox called Sollecito to congratulate him and wish him luck.

“I am obviously very happy for Amanda, since I knew from the start that she had nothing to with it and I believed in her innocence,” he says. “But now it is time to move on. I no longer want this tragedy to tie us together.

“I no longer want to be known as ‘Amanda Knox’s former Italian boyfriend.’ I want to be known for something else than being connected by the prosecutors to a gruesome murder in which I had no part. I prefer to be known as Raffaele Sollecito, the guy who faced all of this and came through at the other end.”

So what does the future hold for Sollecito? He says he’d like to become a game developer, travel to Japan and continue to spend time with his girlfriend of more than a year, Greta, 33. But adjusting to life as a free man will take time.

“I still have a hard time in doing even the most basic things, like smiling. I have to remind myself of how to even smile,” he says. “People will say to me: ‘Hey! Cheer up! It’s all over! Smile!’ But for me it hasn’t really sunken in.”

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