An Italian court convicted two young Americans Wednesday for the murder of a police officer while they were on a summer holiday in Rome, with both handed life sentences.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, had admitted stabbing Mario Cerciello Rega during a late-night encounter in July 2019, while out with his friend Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20.
Prosecutors claimed it was a brutal, unprovoked attack in which Elder, then 19, stabbed Cerciello 11 times with a seven-inch camping knife.
The Americans had claimed self-defence, saying they were jumped from behind by men they thought were thugs following an earlier drug deal gone wrong.
Reading out the verdict, Judge Marina Finiti declared the Americans “guilty of the offences ascribed to them jointly” and sentenced them both to “life imprisonment with solitary confinement for a period of two months, in addition to payment of the costs of the trial”.
Both were remanded in custody.
The policeman’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilo, sobbed audibly and hugged his brother, an AFP reporter in court said.
As his lawyer whispered to him with his hand on his shoulder, Elder appeared close to fainting and was rushed out of the courtroom by police.
Natale-Hjorth did not handle the murder weapon but helped to hide it and under Italian law faced the same homicide charge.
The case, which scandalised Italy while also raising doubts about police conduct, hinged on whether the men from California — who have been in jail since their arrest almost two years ago — knew the officers were police.
They said neither officer showed their badges nor identified themselves as police before the 32-second attack, an account refuted by the state’s principal witness, Cerciello’s partner Andrea Varriale, 27.
“We approached them from the front… we presented ourselves as belonging to the carabinieri (police),” Varriale told the jury during his testimony last year.
“We approached and unfortunately they immediately assaulted us.”
The death of Cerciello, who had just returned from his honeymoon when he was killed, aroused an outpouring of public sympathy in Italy, and his funeral was broadcast live on television where he was hailed as a hero.
But the case similarly highlighted a series of inconsistent statements and blunders made by police, including Natale-Hjorth’s blindfolding during his police interrogation, a falsified police report and Varriale’s lie that he was armed at the time of the attack.
During closing arguments, defence lawyers sought to show that the failure of police to follow protocol the night of the attack suggested that Varriale was an unreliable witness and was covering up how the attack unfolded.
The jury, said Elder attorney Roberto Capra, should consider “if the system is ready to reject the authoritarian idea that law enforcement can be believed at any cost, that they can say whatsoever and be believed because they belong to the police”.
The case has sparked comparisons with the high-profile trial of Amanda Knox, a US student convicted and later acquitted of a 2007 murder in Italy.
“Shock and terror”
A confusing web of events led to the altercation in the early hours of the morning in a genteel neighbourhood near the Americans’ four-star hotel, beginning with their search for cocaine.
After an intermediary introduced them to a drug dealer who sold them aspirin instead, the teens stole the bag of the go-between in retaliation, later demanding money and drugs to return it.
The dealer was actually an informant, and after the bag’s theft was reported to police, Cerciello and Varriale showed up at the designated exchange point — where the attack happened.
Natale-Hjorth, who scuffled with Varriale during the encounter, said he did not know his friend was carrying a knife before the attack, yet helped him hide it afterwards in their hotel room’s ceiling panel.
Elder did not testify during the trial, but in statements made to the court, he apologised for taking Cerciello’s life and said he would never forgive himself. Yet he reiterated his account of the events, describing “shock and terror” at being set upon by a stranger.
“I’ve realised it’s difficult to believe a person in my position. But what I’m telling you today is the truth, just as I spoke the truth at the time,” he said.
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