Rome court to rule on two Americans accused of fatally stabbing police officer | Italy

The fate of two American students accused of killing an Italian police officer will be decided by a Rome court this week in a case being closely watched in Italy.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 20, both from California, were in Rome on holiday when Mario Cerciello Rega was fatally stabbed on a street in the Italian capital in July 2019.

Cerciello Rega, who was 35, had only just returned to work after his honeymoon. A state funeral was held for the officer, who the prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta said was killed in a “disproportionate and deadly attack”.

Calabretta has called for the accused pair, who have been in prison since their arrest, 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,” Calabretta said in her rebuttal to defense arguments in late April.

A jury will begin deliberating the case on Wednesday, with a verdict expected that day or Thursday.

Elder’s parents and the father of Natale-Hjorth, who is from an Italian background, are in Rome for the ruling.

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 traveled to Italy with an 18cm (7in) combat knife in his suitcase, and Natale-Hjorth say they mistook the officers for criminals out to get them.

Earlier in the evening, the students had contacted a middleman to buy cocaine in Trastevere, a popular nightlife area. The middleman took them to a drug dealer, who sold them aspirin instead for €80. 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 called his phone and 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.

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

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of Mario Cerciello Rega, holds a photograph of her husband. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

In an emotional statement to Rome’s Assise court last September, Elder Apologised. “I want to apologise to everyone, to Cerciello Rega’s family and to his friends. To the whole world,” he told Rome’s Assise 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 evaluate this and consider this aspect when sentencing.”

In a more recent hearing, Elder said: “When those men approached they immediately attacked us like they wanted to rob or hurt us without saying a word and without showing any ID or any other object. They didn’t even say ‘Polizia‘, which sounds like the English word police.”

Calabretta dismissed defense 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.

Natale-Hjorth, who fought with Varriale, also faces the charge of “voluntary murder”.

Fabio Alonzi, Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer, has tried to distance his client from Elder. “My client is extraneous to everything that has to do with homicide,” he told the court.

If the jury finds the men guilty and the judge hands down a life sentence, the pair will most probably have to remain in prison while the verdict is appealed. If they are given a lesser sentence, they may be able to leave prison and be put under house arrest during the appeal process.

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