ROME – A jury in Italy has convicted two American friends in the 2019 murder in Rome of a police officer in the tragic demolition of a petty drug trade gone awry, sentencing them to maximum life in prison.
More than 12 hours after deliberations began, the jury of two judges and six civilians delivered verdicts and sentences on Wednesday evening that sparked a collective gasp in the courtroom: Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale -Hjorth, 20, former classmates of the San Francisco area, each was convicted of murder and four other counts and received Italy’s harshest sentence, life imprisonment .
Each had been charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting an official and carrying a stabbing attack without just cause. Presiding Judge Marina Finiti announced that the jury found them guilty of all counts in the indictment.
Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife he took with him on his trip to Europe and that Natale-Hjorth had helped him hide the knife in their bedroom. ‘hotel. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without having materially committed the murder.
On July 26, 2019, the assassination of the officer of the Carabinieri paramilitary police force shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.
The widow of the slain officer, who was holding a photo of her deceased husband pending the verdict, broke down in tears and hugged her brother, Paolo.
“His integrity has been defended,” Rosa Maria Esilio said outside the courtroom, between sobs. “He was everyone’s son, everyone’s rifleman. He was a wonderful husband, he was a wonderful man, a servant of the state who deserved respect and honor.
As the defendants were led out of the courtroom to be returned to their jail cells, Elder’s father Ethan Elder shouted, “Finnegan, I love you. As the parents left the courtroom, as midnight approached, her mother, Leah Elder, sat on a sidewalk, looking dizzy, holding her head.
One of Elder’s lawyers, Renato Borzone, called the verdicts “a shame for Italy”.
Natale-Hjorth lawyer Fabio Alonzi said he was speechless, as was his client. Natale-Hjorth was “completely shocked he kept telling me he didn’t understand.”
In the courtroom of Natale-Hjorth, who has Italian and American nationality, were her father and uncle, who lives in Italy.
Cerciello Rega had recently returned from a honeymoon when he was posted with his partner, Officer Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt. They went in civilian clothes and, for reasons unclear in court testimony, did not bring their service pistols on a mission.
Prosecutors say the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cell phone after their unsuccessful attempt to buy cocaine for 80 euros ($ 96) in Rome’s nightlife district of Trastevere. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified that they paid for the cocaine but did not receive it.
During the trial, which began on February 26, 2020, the Americans told the court they believed Cerciello Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters who showed up, not the middleman, for the appointment. you in a dark and almost deserted place. street near their hotel. The plainclothes police wore casual summer clothes and the defendants insisted that the police never showed the police badges.
Varriale, who injured his back in a fight with Natale-Hjorth while his partner grappled with Elder, said officers identified themselves as riflemen.
At the time of the murder, Elder was 19 and was traveling across Europe without his family, a trip his mother to court said they hoped would bring him a new start in life after several years marked by battles against the depression and a suicide attempt. Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer holidays, as usual, with her Italian grandparents and uncle, who live near Rome.
The teenagers of the time had gathered in Rome for what was supposed to be two days of sightseeing and nightlife.
Prosecutors alleged that Elder pushed a 7-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife repeatedly into Cerciello Rega, who was bleeding profusely.
Elder told the court that the heavy Cerciello Rega, brawling with him, was above him on the ground, and he feared he would be strangled. The elder said he took out the knife and stabbed him to avoid being killed, and when the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed him again.
After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and then asked her to hide it. Natale-Hjorth, who testified that although he was unaware his friend brought the knife to the date, he hid the knife behind a ceiling panel in their bedroom, where it was discovered hours later by the police.
The defendants had told the court that several hours before the stabbing they had attempted to buy cocaine in the nightlife district of Trastevere in Rome. With the intervention of a middleman, they paid a dealer, but instead of cocaine, they received an aspirin-like tablet.
Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a separate carabinieri patrol in the neighborhood intervened and everyone dispersed. The Americans ripped off the middleman’s backpack in retaliation and used a cell phone that was inside to set up a meeting in an attempt to exchange the bag and phone for the money they had. lost in the bad drug deal.
From virtually its inception, the lawsuit has largely boiled down to Varriale’s word against that of the young American visitors.
Photos of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega in his uniform, after their wedding, were widely circulated in Italian media after the murder and during the trial.
Elder’s attorney, Borzone, argued his client had deep psychiatric issues, including a constant fear of being assaulted.
Franco Coppi, a lawyer representing part of the Cerciello Rega family, said the jury’s decision reflected the “gravity of the act, an atrocious crime”.
Yet he refused to say he was satisfied, “because I can’t help but think that such a harsh sentence is falling on two young men in their twenties.”
The jury must set out in detail the reasons for its decisions within 90 days. The justification would then form the basis of any appeal.
Coppi, one of Italy’s most famous criminal defense attorneys, said he believes it is not possible to ascribe less guilt to Natale-Hjorth, even though he did not wielded the knife, as the jury apparently agreed with prosecutors’ claims that he was the architect of the ill-fated plan to get their drug money back.
AP journalist Maria Grazia Murru in Rome contributed to this report.