By FRANCES D’EMILIO Associated Press
ROME (AP) — A jury in Italy convicted two American friends in the 2019 slaying in Rome of a police officer in a tragic unraveling of a small-time drug deal gone bad, sentencing them to the maximum life in prison.
More than 12 hours after deliberations began, the jury of two judges and six civilians delivered verdicts and sentences Wednesday night that set off a collective gasp in the courtroom: Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, former schoolmates from the San Francisco area, were each found guilty of murder and four other counts and received Italy’s stiffest punishment, life imprisonment.
Each had been charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. Presiding Judge Marina Finiti announced the jury found them guilty of all the charges in the trial indictment.
Prosecutors alleged Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without materially doing the slaying.
The July 26, 2019, killing of the officer in the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.
The slain officer’s widow, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, broke down in tears and hugged his brother, Paolo.
“His integrity was defended,” Rosa Maria Esilio said outside the courtroom, between sobs. “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.”
As the defendants were led out of the courtroom to be taken back to their jail cells, Elder’s father, Ethan Elder, called out, “Finnegan, I love you.” As the parents left the courtroom, as midnight neared, his mother, Leah Elder, sat on a curb, looking dazed, holding her head.
One of Elder’s lawyers, Renato Borzone, called the verdicts “a disgrace for Italy.”
A lawyer for Natale-Hjorth, Fabio Alonzi, said he was speechless, just as his client was. Natale-Hjorth was “completely shocked, he kept telling me he did not understand.”
In the courtroom for Natale-Hjorth, who has Italian citizenship as well as U.S. citizenship, were his father and uncle, who lives in Italy.
Cerciello Rega had recently returned from a honeymoon when he was assigned along with partner, officer Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt. They went in plainclothes and, for reasons never clear in court testimony, didn’t bring their service pistols on the mission.
Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their failed attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified they had paid for the cocaine but didn’t receive it.
During the trial, which began on Feb. 26, 2020, the Americans told the court they thought that Cerciello Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters who had showed up, and not the go-between, for the appointment on a dark, nearly deserted street near their hotel. The plainclothes officers wore casual summer clothes, and the defendants insisted the officers never showed police badges.
Varriale, who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner was grappling with Elder, testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri.
At the time of the slaying, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, a trip his mother in court had said they hoped would bring him a fresh start on life after several years marked by battles with depression and a suicide attempt. Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer vacation, as was his habit, visiting his Italian grandparents and uncle, who live near Rome.
The then-teens had met up in Rome for what was supposed to be couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.
Prosecutors alleged that Elder thrust a 7-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife repeatedly into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely.
Elder told the court that the heavy-set Cerciello Rega, scuffling with him, was on top of him on the ground, and he feared that he was being strangled. Elder said he pulled out the knife and stabbed him to avoid being killed, and when the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed again.
After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and then asked him to hide it. Natale-Hjorth, who testified that while he wasn’t aware that his friend had brought the knife to the rendezvous, he stashed the knife behind a ceiling panel in their room, where it was discovered hours later by police.
The defendants had told the court that several hours before the stabbing, they attempted to buy cocaine in the Trastevere nightlife district of Rome. With the intervention of a go-between, 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 all scattered. The Americans snatched the go-between’s knapsack in reprisal, and used a cellphone that was inside to set up a meeting with the goal of exchanging the bag and the phone for the cash they had lost in the bad drug deal.
From practically its start, the trial largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors.
Photos of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega in his dress uniform, after their wedding, were widely displayed in Italian media after the slaying and during the trial.
Elder’s lawyer, Borzone, argued that his client had deep-set psychiatric problems, including a constant fear of being attacked.
Franco Coppi, a lawyer representing some of Cerciello Rega’s family, said the jury’s decision reflected the “gravity of the deed, an atrocious crime.”
Still, he declined to pronounce himself satisfied, “because I can’t help but think that such a harsh sentence falls upon two young men in their 20s.’’
The jury must lay out in detail its reasoning for its decisions within 90 days. The rationale would then form the basis for any appeal.
Coppi, one of Italy’s most celebrated criminal defense lawyers, said that he believed it wasn’t possible to assign less culpability to Natale-Hjorth, even though he did not wield the knife, since the jury apparently agreed with prosecutors’ contentions that he was the architect of the ill-fated scheme to recover their drug money.
AP journalist Maria Grazia Murru in Rome contributed to this report.