The sordid and sad tale of Bay Area teens Gabriel Natale-Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder — now in their early 20s and in prison in Rome — will enter a new chapter Thursday as their 2021 murder conviction comes up for appeal.
It's been more than two and a half years since Natale-Hjorth and Elder's misadventure after a night of partying in Rome, which ended with the death of a 35-year-old police officer — or Carabinieri, as they're called in Italy. Mario Cerciello Rega died of stab wounds he received during a scuffle with Elder during an arrest gone wrong. Elder admits to the stabbing, but says it was in self-defense, and the complicated nature of the case makes for a lot of moral ambiguity and reason for doubt. But all that a Roman jury heard last year was a story of ne'er-do-well Americans up to no good, seeking drugs and trying to extort a drug dealer's middleman, and carrying around a huge camping knife that could only be used for violent acts.
Tales of the boys' drug use, social media evidence of their very American fetishization of guns and knives, and their generally aggressive personalities didn't help their case. And in May 2021, they were convicted of the murder and both sentenced to life in prison, which is the stiffest sentence possible in Italy. Starting Thursday, their appeals trial begins, as NBC Bay Area reports, and it's happening amid some renewed uproar over the treatment the pair received at the hands of the Carabinieri.
A separate trial is happening of the officers who first handled Natale-Hjorth and Elder's arrest, after public outcry over one photograph in particular, showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded before he was to be questioned.
Much like American police officers tend to rally and a foment collective rage when one of their own is harmed in the line of duty, the Carabinieri immediately began exchanging messages after Rega's death about committing acts of violence against the American teens.
As Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported today, via transcripts from the officers' trial, officers were demanding amongst themselves that the Americans get the death penalty — which does not exist in Italy. The officers exchanged various revenge fantasies, like having the boys locked in a room and killed, even having their bodies "dissolved in acid."
One message recalled an infamous 2009 case in Italy in which a suspect was brutally beaten by police and died in custody — and two Carabinieri officers ended up sentenced to 13 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter in that case.
In a statement Wednesday, Carabinieri officials called the revelation about the officers' text messages "offensive and abominable," and they vowed that the officers involved would be disciplined.
It's not clear what sort of chances Natale-Hjorth and Elder have of getting their convictions overturned.
If you haven't seen it, ABC 7's February 2020 recounting of everything that went down on that July 2019 night and what led up to it, titled "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome," is pretty exhaustive and interesting. The full transcript, with accompanying photos and Snapchat evidence, can be found here.
Top image: Snapchat images from Natale-Hjorth's phone that were part of a Carabinieri report on the incident