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American students jailed for life for murder of police officer in Rome

Watch: Italian prosecutor seeks life for US accused

Two American students have been sentenced to life in prison by a Rome court for the murder of Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega.

After almost 13 hour of deliberation, a jury convicted Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, of murdering Cerciello Rega, who had only just returned to duty after his honeymoon when he was stabbed to death, aged 35, on a street in central Rome in July 2019.

A state funeral was held for the officer, who prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta said was killed in a “disproportionate and deadly attack”.

Elder looked stunned when the verdict was read out on Wednesday night.

During a brief court appearance earlier on Wednesday, Elder told his lawyer “I’m stressed” before kissing a crucifix he wears on a neck chain and pointing it towards the sky. Elder’s parents were in court, as was Natale-Hjorth’s uncle.

Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP
Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, broke down in tears in court after hearing the verdict.

“Notwithstanding the fact that there is a dead man who deserves all the pity, the fact that two people are going to prison is not a reason for anyone to rejoice,” Franco Coppi, Esilio’s lawyer, told Rai news. “They are human beings who, although deserve punishment, also suffer.”

Natale-Hjorth was visiting Italian relatives near Rome when he met up with Elder, who was travelling through Europe, on 26 July 2019.

Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and his colleague, Andrea Varriale, was injured after the officers, both in plainclothes and without their service pistols, confronted Elder and Natale-Hjorth in the Prati district of Rome while investigating a bag snatch.

Elder, who had travelled to Italy with an 18cm (7in) combat knife in his suitcase, and Natale-Hjorth said they mistook the officers for criminals out to get them and had acted in self-defence.

Earlier in the evening, the students had contacted a middleman to buy cocaine in Trastevere, a popular nightlife area.

Finnegan Lee Elder – he appeared stunned when the verdict was read out.
Finnegan Lee Elder appeared stunned by the verdict. Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/AFP/Getty Images

The middleman took them to a drug dealer, who charged them €80 (£70) for “cocaine” that was, in fact, aspirin. 

In retaliation, they took the middleman’s bag, containing his mobile phone, and fled before allegedly demanding a cash ransom and cocaine to return the bag.

The middleman arranged to meet the pair in the Prati district. He had also contacted the police to report the theft, and the two officers went to the site.

The students fled the scene and the next day were traced to a hotel, where police found the knife used to kill Cerciello Rega.

Elder admitted repeatedly stabbing Cerciello Rega, but said he and Natale-Hjorth were suddenly confronted by the men, who they thought were drug dealers.

Calabretta called for the pair to be given life sentences. “Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exhibited but a just penalty … in the face of such tragic facts, nobody wins and nobody loses,” she said in her rebuttal to defence arguments in late April.

Calabretta dismissed defence arguments that Elder’s constant fear of attack, the result of a history of psychiatric problems, had led him to kill Cerciello Rega after mistaking him and Varriale for criminals.

Varriale testified that the two officers approached the young men on the street from the front and showed their badges, although Cerciello Rega’s was never found.

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