US students accused of Italy cop murder brace for trial

Ella IDE, Alexandria SAGE
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Police officer Mario Cerciello had just returned to work from his honeymoon when he was killed in the botched drugs bust

Police officer Mario Cerciello had just returned to work from his honeymoon when he was killed in the botched drugs bust (AFP Photo/Eliano IMPERATO)

Rome (AFP) - Two US students go on trial in Italy on Wednesday over the fatal stabbing last year of a policeman in Rome during a botched drug bust.

Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, teenagers at the time of the attack last July, have been charged with killing newlywed Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, who was stabbed 11 times. They face a life sentence if convicted.

The pair are expected in court for the first hearing in a case that has garnered heated media coverage in Italy and strong public sympathy for Cerciello, who had just returned to work from his honeymoon when he was killed.

But the case has been marked by inconsistencies as well as missteps by police -- including the blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth during his police interrogation, which caused outrage. Comparisons have been made to the high-profile trial of Amanda Knox, a US student convicted and later acquitted of a 2007 murder in Italy.

Californian native Elder, who was in Rome on holiday with high-school friend Natale-Hjorth, has admitted to stabbing Cerciello with a 7-inch (18 cm) combat knife, but told investigators he thought he and his friend were being attacked by drug dealers.

Cerciello and his partner Andrea Varriale had been tasked with intercepting the teens after an intermediary on a drug deal reported them to the police hours earlier for stealing his bag when they were sold aspirin in the place of cocaine.

The officers knew where they would be, because the intermediary had agreed to hand over money and cocaine in exchange for his bag at a designated meeting place in an upscale neighbourhood near the teenagers' hotel.

The handover never took place, and the young men and key prosecution witness Varriale have given conflicting accounts of what happened next.

- Maximum penalty -

Elder, now age 20, told police they were jumped from behind by the officers as they rounded a corner in a dark street, and believed they were thugs sent by the drug intermediary.

Varriale has said he and Cerciello, both in plain clothes and unarmed, told the young men they were police, but that Elder pulled out a knife and attacked Cerciello, while Natale-Hjorth wrestled with Varriale.

The teens then fled to their nearby hotel, where police later found the military knife hidden behind a ceiling panel. Surveillance footage capturing the police arriving and the young men fleeing indicated the attack lasted just 32 seconds.

Under Italian law, Natale-Hjorth, who was 18 years old last July, faces the same charge of "voluntary homicide" with a special circumstance of killing a police officer even though he did not stab Cerciello.

Both young men are also charged with attempted extortion. They face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in isolation.

- No badges? -

The prosecution plans to display in court Instagram photos of Elder posing with a knife and wads of cash, a judicial source told AFP, painting him as a rich kid with a taste for drugs and violence who once seriously injured another teen during an illegal boxing match while in high school in San Francisco.

A source close to the Elder family told AFP that the teen was "hit and kicked and spat on" by police during his interrogation.

"I'm concerned we have a prosecution that doesn't seem too terribly concerned with examining the actions or inactions of the Carabinieri (police) that night as carefully as they do trying to make these boys look bad," said the source.

Last week, Elder's lawyer, Renato Borzone, told AFP that a leaked jail conversation between Elder and his father which suggested Elder knew Cerciello was a policeman was poorly translated with key portions missing.

A new translation indicates Elder saying "they didn't show anything," referring to police badges, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported. Moreover, Elder's apparent reference to a "tank" - interpreted as referring to a police car - was actually "bank," Borzone said.

In violation of police rules, the officers had been unarmed and without back-up. After the attack, an ambulance could not quickly locate them, potentially worsening the chances of saving Cerciello, who died in hospital.