The two young men accused in the July 2019 fatal stabbing of a police officer in Rome were found guilty of murder by a jury on Wednesday and given the harshest sentences possible.
21-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder was found guilty on multiple counts, and so was 20-year-old Gabriel Natale-Hjorth. Elder had admitted to the stabbing, however under Italian law, both men were charged equally in the slaying.
As KPIX reports, the men were convicted of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official, and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. And they were given the stiffest sentence possible: life in prison.
The Roman jury deliberated for twelve hours before reaching their verdict late Wednesday. Court officials, police, journalists, and others, all masked, gathered in a courtroom at 10:30 p.m. local time after learning that the jury had reached their verdict. KPIX and other Bay Area stations carried the announcement live, and both Elder and Natale-Hjorth, as well as the widow of the slain officer, were visibly emotional during the reading of the verdict.
This concludes a tale that garnered international attention — and plenty of negative PR for American tourists generally — stemming from a drug deal gone bad that ended in the tragic stabbing death of 35-year-old Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. Cerciello Rega and fellow officer Andrea Varriale were in plain clothes when the approached the two Americans early on the morning of July 26, 2019. Varriale says that they identified themselves as police, but Elder and Natale-Hjorth insist they did not.
The American men, who were 18 and 19 at the time of the crime, admit to getting in a scuffle with the officers, whom they believed to be minions of a drug dealer whose go-between they had robbed of his bag and cellphone. Elder and Natale-Hjorth say they took the bag after the go-between took 80 euros from them and sold them an "aspirin-like tablet" instead of the cocaine they were seeking after a night of drinking in Rome's Trastevere district. After arranging to meet the go-between and return the bag in exchange for a refund, they were instead met by police who had been told of the bag theft. Elder, said he was grabbed by Cerciello Rega and thought he would be strangled, pulled out a knife and ended up stabbing Cerciello Rega 11 times.
In addition to being charged in the homicide, both men faced extortion charges in connection with the bag theft.
Elder's father, Ethan Elder, met with his son last week just prior to the much-delayed trial resuming, and he gave a quote from Finnegan Elder to ABC 7.
"Dad, I know I should do some time for what happened. I stupidly brought a knife to Rome," Elder said. "But I didn't attack and tackle anyone from behind them at three in the morning."
Craig Peters, an attorney for the family, said in a statement to ABC 7, "I think a fair verdict would recognize that those boys made significant mistakes that night. They went out to buy drugs, they shouldn't have been doing that. Finnegan had a knife with him, he shouldn't have had a knife with him."
Both Elder and Natale-Hjorth are graduates of Mount Tamalapais High School, and were college freshman at the time of their arrest. They have remained in Italian police custody for the last 22 months.
Update: The Associated Press reports that prior to the verdict being read, Elder told one of his lawyers, "I’m stressed." He also "took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it. He also turned to his codefendant, Natale-Hjorth, and held out the crucifix toward him through a glass partition, motioning heavenward."
Elder was joined in court by his parents, and Natale-Hjorth was joined by his Italian uncle, who lives near Rome. Natale-Hjorth, who speaks Italian, had been spending the summer of 2019 with his Italian grandparents near Rome when his classmate Elder came to visit, and the two got a hotel room in the city for a few days of site-seeing and partying.
The AP notes that the trial "largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors," and the image projected to the Italian public — of Cerciello Rega's widow seated in the front row throughout the trial, often clutching a photograph of her husband and crying — was not working in the young men's favor.
It's not clear if any appeal process remains available, or whether the pair will ever be eligible for parole.