ROME — Two American men were found guilty of murder Wednesday and sentenced to life in prison for the street-corner killing of an Italian military police officer on an early summer morning, when the two young San Francisco Bay Area natives were vacationing in Rome.
After deliberating for about 11 hours, a jury found Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 20, guilty of the murder of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega.
Gasps were heard across the courtroom as the verdicts were announced. The officer’s widow leaned against her lawyer and sobbed. Elder’s mother collapsed against her husband, as the court imposed the harshest penalty possible under Italian law.
As Elder was being led from the courtroom, his father Ethan called out: “Finnegan, I love you.”
On July 26, 2019, Elder, then 19, and Natale Hjorth, then 18, got into a scuffle on a deserted street corner with two plainclothes police officers, Cerciello Rega and Andrea Varriale.
The defense argued that the defendants had acted in self-defense during the altercation, which lasted for less than 1 minute, believing that the men they were fighting were thugs, not police officers. The prosecution maintained that the pair had acted with “homicidal intent.”
The fight capped a convoluted evening that began with an aborted drug deal in a trendy nightlife neighborhood. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy cocaine, the two Americans stole a backpack belonging to a man said to have brokered that drug deal, then demanded money for its return.
Cerciello Rega, 35, was killed after he and his partner were dispatched to retrieve the backpack. Elder repeatedly stabbed him with a 7-inch military-style knife after they began fighting, and Natale Hjorth briefly wrestled with Varriale.
Elder never denied killing Cerciello Rega, but said he had acted in self-defense, believing that the officer was trying to choke him.
The teenagers were arrested at their hotel, just down the block, a few hours after the murder.
Varriale, 27, has repeatedly stood by his account that he and his partner identified themselves as carabinieri — members of Italy’s military police — when they approached the teenagers. When he took the stand last July, he said that they had pulled out their badges and clearly announced themselves.
The men were also found guilty on charges including attempted extortion, carrying a weapon without just cause, resisting a public official, and assault, for injuring Varriale.
The case attracted international attention in part because of the ages of both the victim and the men on trial. Cerciello Rega, who had just returned to work after his honeymoon, was given a hero’s funeral, broadcast live on national television.
His widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, was in the large courtroom — usually used for major terrorism trials — when the verdict was read, clutching a photo of her husband. After learning that the prosecution had prevailed, she hugged her husband’s brother.
But those who had come to the courtroom to support the slain officer were subdued, not triumphant, as they emerged from the courtroom after a case that had transfixed Italy’s attention came to an end.
“A life sentence is never a trophy,” said Esilio’s lawyer, Massimo Ferrandino.
Speaking to reporters while holding back tears, the widow said: “This has been a very long painful trial. It will never give me back Mario, it will not bring him back to life. It will not give back our life together.”
Natale Hjorth’s lawyer, Fabio Alonzi, denounced the outcome.
“It’s a sentence that leaves me dumbstruck,” he said. “It does not make a dent in our belief that Gabriel Natale Hjorth is innocent,” adding that he would appeal the verdict.
Elder’s lawyer, Renato Borzone, called it “a disgrace for Italy” and said he also planned to appeal.
“I am hopeful for the future,” Borzone said.
Elder and Natale Hjorth have spent the past 21 months in prisons in Rome awaiting trial and verdict.
Throughout the trial, lawyers for the defendants sought to convince the jury that their clients had good reason to be surprised by the two casually dressed Italian men who showed up at the rendezvous where the stolen backpack was to be returned. They had been expecting to see its owner.
In texting with his girlfriend after the failed drug deal, Elder said he had believed that he and Natale Hjorth had been robbed — so he grabbed the backpack. “Everyone started chasing us thru Rome,” he wrote in a text message submitted as evidence during the trial.
A short while later, the two young Americans made an appointment to return the backpack. A scuffle broke out. And a police officer lay dead on a Rome street corner.