The two Bay Area men convicted of killing an Italian police officer in Rome in a weird drug deal gone bad four years ago faced Italy's highest court this week, and the court has now granted the pair a retrial.
News broke late Wednesday afternoon that Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation has granted a retrial to 23-year-old Finnegan Elder and 22-year-old Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, who were first convicted two years ago in the stabbing death of a Roman police officer. ABC 7's Dan Noyes first reported the news in the Bay Area — and Noyes has previously disclosed that his own sons were acquainted with the men when they were in high school in Marin County.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, at the time of their arrests in July 2019. They were on a whirlwind weekend in Rome, just after their first year in college, when they encountered a possibly shady drug dealer and his underling, in an attempt to buy cocaine in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district.
The whole misadventure would end with them mistaking two plainclothed police officers — members of Rome's Carabinieri — for common thugs who wanted to rough them up or worse. And in a fatal decision, Elder pulled a knife that he was carrying with him and stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerceillo Rega 11 times. Rega ultimately died from his wounds, in part, possibly, because it took too long for an ambulance to reach the scene.
From an American perspective, this was a crime, to be sure, but many of us may have sympathy for a couple of dumb kids looking for drugs who read a situation completely wrong, and thought they were fighting for their lives. From an Italian perspective, the Americans were the thugs, up to no good and carrying weapons, and this poor police officer and new father was brutally killed for no reason.
An Italian appeals court has already shown some sympathy for Elder and Natale-Hjorth, after they were initially sentenced to life in prison following their May 2021 homicide conviction. On appeal last year, the two were resentenced to 24 and 22 years respectively.
But attorneys for the two men have argued that the court has ignored their side of the story — and, in particular, the question of whether Rega and his partner clearly identified themselves as police when they confronted them and got into a scuffle. According to the young men, the officers "attacked them" when they thought they were waiting to meet a drug dealer's mediator whose backpack they had stolen.
The deadly event unfolded in just 32 seconds, as ABC 7's Dan Noyes has explained in a documentary short on the case, and another problem is that Elder didn't speak Italian. Natale-Hjorth, whose father is Italian, heard Rega tell Elder, "Stop, we are carabinieri, that's enough," as Elder tried to fight him — but Elder would not have understood what he was saying. Also, Natale-Hjorth and Elder couldn't have known that the drug dealer and his men all had an established relationship with the cops.
Natale-Hjorth scuffled with Rega's partner and says he didn't know the stabbing had even taken place. The two ran back to their hotel, where Elder stashed the knife in a ceiling panel, but the police were all over them quickly and they were arrested that morning.
As the Associated Press reported, Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation heard their case this week and is now deliberating. Although the appeals court upheld their conviction last year, the Italian legal system still allows for this final appeal, and lawyers for the two men argued that the prosecution's reconstruction of events was flawed. They also presented evidence that the officers did not initially identify themselves as police.
Top image: A view of the exterior of Rome's criminal court before the start of the trial of US teenagers Hjorth And Elder, on February 26, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Today is the start of the trial of US teenagers Finnegan Lee Elder, 20 years old and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18 years old, who are accused of killing the Italian Carabieniere officer Mario Cerciello Rega on 25 July, 2019. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)