The fate of two American students accused of killing an Italian policeman will be decided this week by a court in Rome in a closely watched case in Italy.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 20, both Californians, were in Rome on vacation when Mario Cerciello Rega was fatally stabbed on a street in the Italian capital in July 2019.
35-year-old Cerciello Rega had just returned to work after his honeymoon. A state funeral was organized for the officer, who, according to prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta, was killed in a “disproportionate and deadly attack”.
Calabretta has asked that the two defendants, who have been in prison since their arrest, be sentenced to life. “Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exposed but a fair sentence… Faced with such tragic facts, no one wins and no one loses,” Calabretta said in his rebuttal to the defense arguments at the end of April.
A jury will begin deliberating on the case on Wednesday, with a verdict expected that day or Thursday.
The parents of the former and the father of Natale-Hjorth, of Italian origin, are in Rome for the decision.
On July 26, 2019, Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and his colleague Andrea Varriale was injured after officers, in civilian clothes and without their service pistols, confronted Elder and Natale-Hjorth in Rome’s Prati district at the time. that they were investigating a bag theft. .
Elder, who had traveled to Italy with an 18 cm (7 inch) combat knife in his suitcase, and Natale-Hjorth say they mistook the officers for criminals to get them out.
Earlier in the evening, the students contacted an intermediary to buy cocaine in Trastevere, a popular nightlife district. The middleman took them to a drug dealer, who sold them aspirin for € 80. In retaliation, they took the middleman’s bag, containing his cell phone, and fled before allegedly demanding a cash ransom and cocaine to return the bag.
The intermediary called his phone and arranged to meet the couple in the Prati neighborhood. He also contacted the police to report the theft, and the two officers attended the scene.
The students fled the scene and the next day they were found in a hotel, where police found the knife used to kill Cerciello Rega.
Elder admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega several times, but said he and Natale-Hjorth were suddenly confronted by the men, whom they thought were drug traffickers.
In a moving statement to the Rome Assize Court last September, Elder apologized. “I want to apologize to everyone, to Cerciello Rega’s family and to his friends. To the whole world, ”he told the Rome Assize Court. “If I could go back and change things, I would do it now, but I can’t.”
Roberto Capra, Elder’s lawyer, said: “He apologized because he wanted to, not for any other reason. But of course the court could assess that and take that aspect into account when determining the sentence.
In a more recent hearing, Elder said: “When these men approached they immediately attacked us as if they wanted to rob or hurt us without saying a word and showing no ID or anything else. object. They didn’t even say ‘police‘, which looks like the English word police. ”
Calabretta rejected the defense arguments that Elder’s constant fear of attacks, the result of a history of psychiatric problems, had led him to kill Cerciello Rega after mistaking him for Varriale for criminals.
Varriale testified that the two officers approached the young men in the street from the front and showed their badges, although Cerciello Rega’s was never found.
Natale-Hjorth, who fought with Varriale, also faces charges of “voluntary manslaughter.”
Fabio Alonzi, Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer, tried to get his client away from Elder. “My client is a stranger to anything to do with homicide,” he told the court.
If the jury finds the men guilty and the judge imposes a life sentence, the couple will most likely have to remain in jail while the verdict is appealed. If they are given a lesser sentence, they may be able to leave prison and be placed under house arrest during the appeal process.