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‘Justice in Italy has worked’: Many in Rome applaud Californians’ life sentences in police killing

Finnegan Lee Elder, left, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth arrive for a court hearing in Rome on Wednesday.
(Associated Press)

The man knocking back an espresso outside a cafe in Rome had no doubt the two Californians had earned their life sentences in prison for the stabbing death of a police officer.

“The proof was overwhelming, and for once, justice in Italy has worked,” Enrico Papa, a local fashion entrepreneur, said Thursday, a day after a jury convicted Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, in the officer’s 2019 killing.

Many Rome residents and Italian politicians applauded the sentencing of the two men from Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, who scuffled with two plainclothes police officers on a hot night in Rome two years ago after a drug deal went wrong.

At the end of the tussle, one of the officers, Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, lay dead after being stabbed 11 times by Elder, according to testimony during the 14-month trial.

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The two Americans later told authorities they thought the officers were criminals and that they failed to identify themselves. They said the officers assaulted them and Elder said he acted in self-defense as Cerciello Rega sat astride him and choked him.

The surviving officer, Andrea Varriale, told the court the opposite was true — that the officers did identify themselves and it was the tourists who leaped on him and his colleague.

The jury late Wednesday handed down the longest sentence possible, prompting a tearful thank-you from Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, outside the court.

“His integrity was defended,” Esilio said.

That drew praise from Giorgia Meloni, the head of the hard-right Italian opposition party Brothers of Italy, who said Esilio’s words “strike at the heart.”

In a tweet, Meloni wrote: “We hope the assassins serve out their sentences right to the last day, without time off.”

News of the ruling, which made the front page of every major Italian newspaper, also drew applause from Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right League party, which is part of Italy’s governing coalition.

Two years ago, as huge crowds attended Cerciello Rega’s funeral — which was broadcast live on television — Salvini said Elder and Natale-Hjorth deserved forced labor in prison.

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On Thursday, after the verdict, he tweeted, “Honour and justice for Mario Cerciello Rega.”

The evening leading up to Cerciello Rega’s death started when Elder and Natale-Hjorth — former schoolmates vacationing in Rome — purchased drugs from a street dealer, only to discover they had been sold ground-up aspirin.

They took a bag of personal items from a man they believed was an accomplice of the dealer, demanding their money back for its return.

The man alerted the paramilitary Carabinieri police, who dispatched the two officers to meet the Americans near their hotel in the upscale Prati district.

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Varriale initially told investigators he and Cerciello Rega were armed when they met the Americans, but later admitted to investigators that they were not.

On Thursday, Craig Peters, a lawyer representing Elder, said the verdict was based on the testimony of Varriale, even though he had lied about carrying arms.

“I am confounded by this verdict that lacks both reason and compassion,” he said. “It lays all the blame with two young boys, while holding blameless the Carabinieri who failed to follow basic police procedures which, had they been followed, would have Cerciello Rega with us here today.”

The life sentences were better suited to “unredeemable, career criminals that commit premeditated killings,” he said.

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“The message sent by these judges is loud and clear. Those in a position of power, the Carabinieri and the prosecutors, can lie and mislead and they will not be held responsible.”

The verdict was reached by six lay jurors, a presiding judge and a second judge. Within 90 days, the judges will issue the reasoning for the sentence, and Peters said defense lawyers would then mount an appeal.

The defendants, who were held in jail during the trial, remained in custody after the verdict.

“I look forward to having the appellate court, with experienced, rational judges, objectively review the facts to determine a just outcome in this case for these two young boys,” Peters said.

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The case has drawn comparison with the 2007 arrest in Perugia, Italy, of American student Amanda Knox, who was accused of murdering her flatmate, convicted after a controversial investigation, then acquitted following a series of trials in 2016.

The murder probe in Rome was also questioned by the families of the defendants: A photo was leaked of Natale-Hjorth being interrogated while handcuffed and blindfolded and Elder’s father has said his son was slapped, kicked and spat on during questioning.

Police wiretapped statements made by Elder and then mistranslated them, just as Perugia police misunderstood messages they found on Knox’s phone.

Carlo Dalla Vedova, a lawyer who represented Knox, said, however, the comparisons ended there.

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“In the Knox case the facts were not clear, while here the facts cannot be denied,” he said. “I am very sorry for these boys, but 11 stab wounds is a lot.”

Kington is a special correspondent.


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