Bay Area students to face verdict in Italian officer's death

The verdict will be announced Wednesday for two college students from the Bay Area who are accused of murdering a police officer in Rome in July 2019.

Video Transcript

- Well, it all comes down to this. Tomorrow is judgment day for two college students from the Bay Area accused of murdering a police officer in Rome in July of 2019. Their verdict is scheduled to be announced on Wednesday. And the I-Team's Dan Noyes traveled to Italy the day of their arrest. For nearly two years, he has been covering this case, both overseas and right here at home in the Bay Area, where the suspects families live.

And Dan joins us live with the very latest. Dan, so much has transpired over the last couple of years. You have covered all of it. Remarkable in so many ways that tomorrow is judgment day.

DAN NOYES: Yeah, finally. The trial has dragged on for a year, facing many delays because of the pandemic. The families are now back in Rome, bracing for the verdict.

On the eve of a verdict in the case, 21-year-old Finnegan Elder of San Francisco appears to be accepting that he could face more time in prison for stabbing this Italian police officer to death. Ethan Elder met with his son last week and gave me this quote, "dad, I know I should do some time for what happened. I stupidly brought a knife to Rome. But I didn't attack and tackle anyone from behind them at 3:00 in the morning."

That's the defense, that Finnegan Elder and his friend, 20-year-old Gabriel Natale-Hjorth of Marin County were on a street corner to meet someone associated with a drug dealer. But two police officers in plainclothes approached.

FINNEGAN ELDER: Those men directly attacked us, without having announced or identified themselves as police.

DAN NOYES: Finn Elder testified he thought he was in a life or death struggle with a gang member connected to the drug dealer. Officer Mario Cerciello Rega outweighed Elder by 100 pounds, and had him pinned to the ground. Elder reached for this knife.

FINNEGAN ELDER: After several hits, he grabbed my hand, the one that I was holding the knife with, and tried to turn it against me.

DAN NOYES: Officer Cerciello Rega died after suffering 11 stab wounds, leaving behind a widow he had married just the month before. She attended each hearing in this case, clutching her husband's photo.

The Elder family attorney, now in Rome for the verdict, said Finnegan should not be convicted of murder.

CRAIG PETERS: I think a fair verdict would recognize that these boys made significant mistakes that night. They went out to buy drugs, they shouldn't have been doing that. Finnegan had a knife with him, he shouldn't have had a knife with him.

DAN NOYES: Craig Peters outlined problems with the prosecution's case. Supervisors in the Italian police force, the Carabinieri, initially said Cerciello Rega's partner did not have time to fire his weapon at the fleeing Americans, and the officer's superiors tried to cover for them, telling reporters they had recovered handguns from the officers that night. Then, it became clear neither officer brought their service weapon, their police badges, or their handcuffs to the meeting with the Americans that early morning.

CRAIG PETERS: Ultimately, there were other people that made some really bad decisions as well, and had those other bad decisions not been made, again, Cerciello Rega would be here today, had the Carabinieri simply followed protocols for an undercover operation.

DAN NOYES: Then there's this. Cell phone video of Gabriel Natale-Hjorth blindfolded at the police station. Video shot by the officer he had struggled with, just hours before.

- [SPEAKING ITALIAN]

DAN NOYES: The prosecutor has asked for life sentences, a panel of two professional judges, and six civilian judges could find the defendants guilty, but reduce the sentence, convict on lesser charges, or find them not guilty.

CRAIG PETERS: It's certainly not life. It's certainly not 25 years. That would be disproportionate, and that would be giving the Carabinieri a pass.

DAN NOYES: I reached Gabriel Natale-Hjorth's parents, but they declined to comment today. Finnegan Elder's mother Leah texted me, "I love my son. He does not deserve the entire blame of wrong for that night."

The panel of judges has requested overnight accommodations for tomorrow, so the verdict could come on Wednesday or on Thursday. For the I-Team, Dan Noyes, ABC 7 News. Dan, Ama?

- All right.