A jury in Rome has begun deliberating the fates of two Americans on trial for the killing of an Italian plainclothes police officer while travelling Europe.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, are accused of killing Vice Bridgadier Mario Cerciello Rega on a street near their hotel in the small hours of July 26, 2019.
The pair were indicted on charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault of the victim's police partner, resisting a public official and carrying a knife without just cause.
Prosecutors allege that Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega eleven times with a knife he had brought with him on the trip from California, and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the weapon in their hotel.
The slain Carabinieri paramilitary officer, 35, had recently returned from honeymoon when the incident took place.
He had been assigned along with a fellow officer, Andrea Varriale, to follow up on an alleged small-scale extortion attempt by the two Americans after they tried 80 euros' worth of cocaine in Rome's Trastevere nightlife district.
The pair said they had paid for the drug from an Italian dealer but didn’t receive it. They had snatched the go-between’s backpack and were expecting him to come to retrieve it in exchange for their money. Instead, the two plainclothes officers arrived.
Tourists claim mistaken identity led to fight with police officers
Both defendants contend that they acted in self-defence. During the trial, which opened in February 2020, they told the court they thought that Cerciello Rega and Varriale, who were wearing casual summer clothes, were thugs or mobsters out to assault them.
Both insisted the officers never showed police badges. On March 1, Elder told the court he thought he was being strangled by a thug.
“In a blink of the eye,” he said, “they came around and rushed us without saying a word.”
Calling Cerciello Rega a “mountain of a man”, he added: “He tackled me to the ground and put all his weight on me… I could feel his hands first on my chest and then on my neck, with pressure, as if he was trying to strangle or choke me.
“As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively took my knife and hit him a few times in an effort to get him off me.”
Elder also testified that Cerciello Rega had tried to grab the 18-centimetre knife, which he said he had with him as a “foolish precaution”, and turn it against him, after which he stabbed the Italian police officer again.
Varriale, who suffered a back injury during the altercation, testified that he had heard his partner cry out “Carabinieri!” as Elder and Cerciello Rega struggled in the street. Elder said he did not hear this.
On Wednesday, the defendants were allowed to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which is made up of presiding judge Finiti, a second judge and six civilians.
Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta had asked the court to convict both defendants and issue them with Italy’s maximum punishment, a life sentence.
Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even without materially doing the killing.
Calabretta said the stabbing of the officer had been “disproportionate and deadly”. Rejecting suggestions that she was seeking life imprisonment for both as a “trophy,″ she told the court last Monday: ”There is no trophy for anyone here. You don’t win or lose, beyond what was already lost: the life of a man.”
Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone said his client was “tense but confident”, adding: “We hope to get to the bottom of this with courage and independence from the institutions which pressure for an unjust sentence.”
A verdict is expected to be delivered on Wednesday or Thursday.