The legal proceedings stemming from a tragic incident in July 2019 in Rome involving two teenagers from the Bay Area are still ongoing due to the pandemic, and this week, defense attorneys will present their closing arguments and a verdict is likely.
The trial began almost 14 months ago, just before COVID-19 would hit Italy in a devastating wave that shut down the entire country, and many of us have heard most of the details in the case. Finnegan Lee Elder, now 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, were on vacation in Rome two summers ago when a coke deal gone bad took a tragic turn that made international headlines. As their attorneys have laid out during the court proceedings, the two men — who were both 19 at the time of the crime — were out drinking in Trastevere, Rome's nightlife district, when they decided they wanted to find some cocaine.
In one detail from the Associated Press that we had not heard before, after months in which hearings were held online sometimes without public access, we learn that the dealer's go-between whom the two young men met and paid 80 euros to ($96) handed them an "aspirin-like tablet" instead of what they were looking for. Natale-Hjorth, who speaks Italian, tried to confront the go-between, but an apparently chaotic scene ensued involving some other police arriving in the neighborhood.
Angry about the transaction, the two men snatched the unnamed go-between's backpack, containing his cellphone. They then used the phone to contact him and demand their money back — but due to some apparently symbiotic relationship with local police, the go-between called the cops to report his stolen phone, and set the two men up to be confronted by plainclothes Carabinieri, Roman police.
Enter Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Cerciello Rega, who was wearing a T-shirt and long shorts, and his also casually dressed partner Andrea Varriale. Varriale has testified that the officers identified themselves as police right away, but Elder and Natale-Hjorth have said since early in the case that they acted in self-defense because they believed they were being confronted by crime bosses or heavies. Natale-Hjorth ended up in a physical scuffle with Varriale, and Elder scuffled with the more heavyset Rega — who he believed was trying to strangle him, he said. Elder admitted to stabbing Rega with a seven-inch "military-style attack knife," and when Rega didn't let go of him, he stabbed him again. (He was actually stabbed 11 times.)
The two younger men fled the scene and tried stashing the knife behind a ceiling panel in their hotel room, where it was quickly found by police.
The prosecution contends that both men deserve life in prison, which is the harshest penalty in Italy. The judge in the case has indicated that a verdict would come down on Wednesday or Thursday.
Separately, an investigation is ongoing into the Carabinieri's treatment of the young men shortly after their arrest. A photo of Natale-Hjorth sitting blindfolded and handcuffed in custody was widely shared after an officer posted it on WhatsApp, and officers are also accused of posting unproven accusations about the suspects and images taken from the cellphones.
Both men grew up partly in Marin County and graduated from Mount Tamalpais High School.
Back in September, Elder offered a public apology in court to the family of Rega, saying, "That night was the worst night of my life because I took a man's life."