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Mother Of American Sentenced To Life In Italy Fears Her Son Won't Survive Prison

Leah Elder told "Good Morning America" that her son, Finnegan Elder, said he feels that the sentence handed down last week is worse than the death penalty.

By Kevin Dolak
American Tourists Sentenced To Life In Italian Prison

The mother of the young American man found guilty by an Italian jury last week of murdering an Italian police officer during a botched drug deal has said that she doesn’t know if he will survive spending the rest of his life in prison — a sentence she said he feels is a fate worse than death. 

“He was utterly devastated by the verdict, just devastated. It was completely unexpected for him,” Leah Elder told “Good Morning America” in an interview that aired Monday. “He feels like he has been sentenced to something worse than the death penalty.”

After a three-month trial, Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were found guilty last week of homicide and four other charges for the July 26, 2019 stabbing death by Elder of 35-year-old Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. The verdict and maximum possible sentence were delivered to a shocked courtroom by a jury of six civilians and two judges, who deliberated for 12 hours.

Finnegan Lee Elder Ap

Elder and Natale-Hjorth, then teenagers, were on vacation in Italy when they spent 80 euro on what turned out to be fake cocaine. In an attempt to get their money back, Elder had snatched a bag and phone belonging to the man who’d duped them. They arranged for the dealer to meet them and it was agreed he would give them their money in exchange for his phone and bag. When Cerciello Rega and another officer, tipped off about an extortion attempt, arrived at the scene of the anticipated exchange, a tussle ensued with the young men that ended with Elder stabbing the officer 11 times and the teens escaping to stash the weapon in their hotel room.

During the trial in Rome, Leah Elder testified about her son’s struggles with mental health and a previous attempt on his own life as a teen. The defense argued that the teens thought the officers, who were in plain clothes, were gangsters. Speaking alongside her husband, Leah Elder detailed her son's mental health struggles to “GMA.”

“He has a noted history of attempted suicide, and we’re really worried and really concerned,” she said. “He struggles with anxiety and depression, and his current situation is really perilous.” 

She pointed out that her son has not changed his version of events leading to Cerciello Rega’s death, and said that at times he “vomits the truth,” adding that her son is “incredibly kind, he’s incredibly sensitive.” 

“I understand that a man’s life was lost that night. I understand that Finnegan should serve some time,” she said.“I would like Finnegan to have some sort of sentence that’s proportionate and something that helps at least acknowledge his mental health issues,” 

“We just want Finn to be able to survive this,” she told producers. 

Defense Attorney Craig Peters told the show that he believed that the Italian jury gave the young men a sentence befitting a mob boss. 

“How could these two boys possibly be in that same league?” he asked.

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. The legal teams for both young men plan to appeal last week’s verdict. 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. 

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