ROME – Two American students were found guilty on Wednesday of killing an Italian policeman after a lengthy trial and were sentenced to life in prison.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, both of Mill Valley, Calif., Have been charged with stabbing Vice Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega died on July 26, 2019, during a meeting they organized to exchange a stolen backpack for money lost in drug trafficking.
Elder later admitted in a statement read to Rome’s High Court that he stabbed Cerciello Rega, but said he did so because he feared for his life.
“I want to apologize to everyone, Cerciello Rega’s family and friends, all over the world,” he said. “If I could go back and change things, I would do it now, but I can’t.”
After the verdict was announced, Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone said over the phone that he would appeal. “We will appeal and hope to find a more reasonable judge next time. It is unknown what happened,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this in my 40-year career. Giving life sentences to two 19-year-old boys is shameful. Italian justice is strong with the weak and weak with the strong.”
On the night of the murder, the couple bought what they believed to be cocaine but turned out to be aspirin, the court heard. When they realized, prosecutors said, they stole the backpack of the Italian man who presented them to the drug dealer. They then arranged to meet up and return the backpack.
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But the intermediary notified police, and plainclothes officers Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, met Elder and Natale-Hjorth during the exchange.
After a brawl broke out, Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times with a 7-inch military-style attack knife.
Varriale testified that he tried to keep the blood from flowing like a “fountain” from his partner, but Rega died in a hospital shortly after.
His funeral took place at the church where he had married six weeks earlier.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were arrested hours later. A knife was found hidden inside a ceiling panel in their hotel room, and police say Elder admitted to being the owner.
Both were charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, carrying a weapon of the attack type without just cause and resisting a public official. Under Italian law, anyone indirectly participating in an alleged murder can also face murder charges.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth admitted that they looked to buy cocaine that night and grabbed the middleman’s backpack before they set up a meeting near their hotel to exchange the bag for exchange for the money they had given to the drug dealer.
However, they claimed they acted in self-defense and that the police did not identify themselves as police – a claim Varriale denied.
Their trial, which began in February 2020, has been delayed by lockdowns against coronaviruses, and some of the hearings proceeded without the public or journalists.
Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta previously asked the court to convict the two defendants and sentence them to life imprisonment – Italy’s most severe criminal sentence – for “the disproportionate and murderous attack”.
“Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exhibited but a fair sentence. … Faced with such tragic facts, no one wins and no one loses, ”she told the court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.