ROME (AP) — Defense lawyers in the case of two American teenagers accused of slaying an Italian police officer in Rome complained Friday that some of the translations of conversations intercepted in the suspects’ jail were so poorly done that the meaning of the words plays out in the prosecution’s favor.
Roberto Capra said in a phone interview that whoever prepared the transcripts for the prosecution also committed the “grave deed” of omitting conversations his client had with family members and a personal U.S. lawyer that were deemed helpful for the defense.
The Turin-based lawyer is on the defense team for Finnegan Lee Elder in the murder trial which begins next week in Rome.
Elder and friend Gabriel Natale-Hjorth are accused in the fatal stabbing of the officer in July 2019, a few hours after a drug deal gone bad. Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and his fellow plainclothes officer was assaulted in a scuffle with the Americans, prosecutors say. They allege that Elder knifed Cerciello Rega and that Natale-Hjorth assaulted the other officer.
The Americans had gone to a rendezvous near their hotel in Rome after allegedly demanding their money back and some cocaine in the wake of what prosecutors say was a botched drug deal in another part of Rome, where the two were vacationing. The officers went to meet the pair, following a complaint by the alleged deal’s go-between, to retrieve a backpack with a phone inside that he claimed the Americans had snatched from him.
In one of the translations, published in two Italian newspapers this week, a U.S.-based lawyer, while speaking with the jailed Elder, discussed presenting motions to the court. But according to the translation in the transcript prepared for the prosecution, the lawyer proposed “playing on emotions to win sympathy with the court.”
Capra said given the defense’s objections the trial judge will assign an impartial translator to prepare a new transcript.
“We’ll fight in court to have (translation) errors corrected, but it’s a grave deed” regarding omissions from the transcript. In one such key omission, Elder tells his lawyer he didn’t know Cerciello Rega was a police officer but thought he was some “random criminal guy.”
Capra said unlike possible incompetence in the case of the erroneous translations, “there’s no explanation” for the omitted conversations. When the court-assigned expert hears the intercepted conversations, the omitted portions will be restored, the lawyer said.
A prosecutor in the case didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the poor translations or the omissions.
Among passages of intercepted conversations apparently left out of the transcript was when Elder said in a jailhouse conversation that the officers never showed or said anything to indicate they were plainclothes police.
Prosecutors have said Cerciello Rega went to the rendezvous unarmed. They contend the murder weapon was hidden in the American’s hotel room.
In Italy, lawyers’ conversations with clients are privileged and can’t be intercepted. Capra said it was permissible to intercept Elder’s chat with the U.S. lawyer because the attorney, not a member of the Italian bar association, cannot practice in Italy and thus isn’t part of his official legal team under the Italian justice system rules.
Both Americans, who come from northern California, have insisted they feared that the officers, who they didn’t know were police, were going to harm them and thus acted to defend themselves.