Lawyers for American students jailed for life over murder of Italian police officer vow to appeal

·4 min read
US citizen Finnegan Lee Elder (C) reacts after the court decision on May 5, 2021, during his trial - TIZIANA FABI /AFP
US citizen Finnegan Lee Elder (C) reacts after the court decision on May 5, 2021, during his trial - TIZIANA FABI /AFP

Lawyers for two young Americans who were sentenced to life in prison by a court in Rome after being found guilty of knifing to death an Italian policeman have called the verdict “a mockery of justice” and vowed to appeal.

Finnegan Lee Elder, now 21, had admitted to stabbing the officer in a fight that followed a botched drug deal, while his friend Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, injured a second officer during the fracas.

The murder of Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old vice-brigadier in the Carabinieri who had just returned from his honeymoon, shocked many Italians and sparked national mourning.

His colleague, police officer Andrea Varriale, sustained injuries to his back in the confrontation on the streets of Rome.

The Americans insisted they had been acting in self-defence because they were convinced the two plainclothes policemen were in fact thugs attacking them in the wake of an attempt to buy cocaine that went awry.

But that justification was dismissed by the jury, which found them guilty late on Wednesday night after hours of deliberation.

The two young Californians were also found guilty of attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying a knife without just cause.

Their lawyers immediately announced they would appeal the verdict and sentence, setting the stage for a legal process that could drag on for years.

“I’m confounded by this verdict that lacks both reason and compassion,” said Craig Peters, an American lawyer representing Elder.

“It lays all the blame with the two young boys, while holding blameless the Carabinieri who failed to follow basic police procedures which, had they been followed would have Cerciello Rega with us here today. This verdict makes a mockery of justice.”

The Americans had been handed a sentence “that is reserved for unredeemable, career criminals who commit premeditated killings,” Mr Peters said.

He hoped an appeals court would “objectively review the facts to determine a just outcome in this case for these two young boys.”

The Americans were on holiday in Rome in 2019 when they decided to go for a night out in the popular Trastevere district, where they decided to buy some cocaine.

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, holds a photograph of her husband - Alessandra Tarantino /AP
Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, holds a photograph of her husband - Alessandra Tarantino /AP

They found a drug dealer’s go-between and paid him €80 for a small amount of cocaine but later discovered that it was ground-up aspirin.

They grabbed his backpack and said they would give it back at an arranged rendezvous if he paid them back their money.

But the go-between, who was an informer, had in the meantime called the police.

Instead of him turning up for the rendezvous, the two police officers appeared, wearing plain clothes.

A confrontation ensued, with the Americans telling the trial they thought they were being attacked by thugs because the officers did not identify themselves as police.

But Varriale told the court that he and his colleague did identify themselves clearly. The officer was later found to have lied about having his service pistol with him – it emerged that neither he nor his colleague were carrying their firearms.

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of slain Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, reacts after U.S. citizens Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were found guilty - REMO CASILLI /REUTERS
Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of slain Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, reacts after U.S. citizens Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were found guilty - REMO CASILLI /REUTERS

In the fight that ensued, Elder wrestled with Cerciello Rega, stabbing him 11 times with a 7in-long combat knife that he had brought from California.

The American told the trial, which began in February last year, that he feared he was going to be strangled. The officer died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The former school friends then ran back to their hotel where Elder cleaned the knife and Natale-Hjorth hid it behind a ceiling panel in their room.

The murdered officer’s widow broke down in tears when the sentence was read out.

“It has been a long and painful trial. This will not bring Mario back to me,” said Rosa Maria Esilio. “It will not bring him back to life.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting