Two American men were sentence to life in prison by an Italian jury on Wednesday for the 2019 stabbing death of a police officer, who was killed in the streets of Rome during a low-level drug deal gone horribly wrong.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were found guilty of homicide and four other charges for the July 26, 2019 stabbing death by Elder of 35-year-old Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. A gasp was heard in the courtroom as the verdict and maximum possible sentence were delivered by the jury of six civilians and two judges, who deliberated for 12 hours, according to the Associated Press.
“[It’s] a disgrace for Italy,” Renato Borzone, one of Elder’s lawyers, said of the verdicts.
The killing of Cerciello Rega, a member of the prestigious Carabinieri paramilitary police corps, sent shockwaves through Italy. The officer, who had just returned from his honeymoon with Rosa Maria Esilio, was mourned as a national hero.
“His integrity was defended,” Esilio said outside the courtroom after the verdict and sentence were read, the AP reported. “He was everyone’s son, everyone’s Carabiniere. He was a marvelous husband, he was a marvelous man, a servant of the state who deserves respect and honor.”
According to authorities, Elder and Natale-Hjorthe spent 80 euros for cocaine, but received an aspirin-like susbstance instead. They then concocted a plan to get their money back by taking a bag and cell phone from the drug dealer's go-between. Officers Cerciello Rega and Andrea Varriale were assigned to follow up on the reported extortion attempt by the two Americans. When the officers arrived at the exchange spot on a dark Rome street in casual summer clothes, they did not bring their service weapons. A scuffle between the officers and young men ensued; the young men later said they’d thought the officers were local criminals. The defendants said in court that Cerciello Rega and Varriale never showed them their badges; however, this claim was contradicted by Varriale, who told the court they did ID themselves as Carabinieri.
As a tussle ensued, Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega with a 7-inch military-style knife 11 times, killing him. Elder claimed he thought Cerciello Rega was strangling him and stabbed him in self defense.
The teens then rushed to their hotel room, where Elder cleaned off the knife and Natale-Hjorth stashed the weapon behind a ceiling panel in their room. Natale-Hjorth told the court that he was unaware Elder had brought the blade with him that night. Police found the weapon in the room hours later.
In Italy, an accomplice to a murder may face the same charges as the killer. Prosecutors argued that Natale-Hjorth had masterminded the plan to retrieve the young men’s 80 euros and was therefore responsible for setting the deadly sequence of events into action.
During the nearly 10-week trial, Elder’s attorneys said that the young man had deep psychological issues that included a fear of being attacked. His mother testified that her son had battled depression and survived a suicide attempt.
In addition to the homicide charge, the young men were found guilty of attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official, and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. As per Italian law, the jury now has 90 days to detail its reasoning for its decisions; this forms the basis for a potential appeal.
On Wednesday, as the Americans were taken back to their jail cells following the reading of the verdict, Ethan Elder, Finnegan's father, yelled out, “Finnegan, I love you.”
Franco Coppi, one of Cerciello Rega’s family’s attorneys, said the verdict reflected the “gravity of the deed, an atrocious crime.”
However, as the AP reported, he felt a degree of resignation about Wednesday’s decision.
“I can’t help but think that such a harsh sentence falls upon two young men in their 20s,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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