ROME — An Italian prosecutor Saturday asked that two San Francisco men on trial in the 2019 killing of a military police officer in Rome receive the maximum sentence of life in prison.
Wrapping up a nearly four-hour summation in a stuffy Rome courtroom, the prosecutor, Maria Sabina Calabretta, argued that the two men acted with “homicidal intent” when they assaulted Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega and his partner on a July night in 2019.
“A grave injustice” was “committed against a good man who was working,” she said, and only the convictions of Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, would ensure that the officer “not be killed again.”
The yearlong trial has drawn intense media scrutiny in Italy and headlines in the United States with its focus on the behavior of the two Americans the night of the confrontation and the tragic death of the newly married officer.
The officer, who served in the Italian military police, known as the carabinieri, died of stab wounds inflicted by Elder with a combat knife during a scuffle that took place in the early hours of a sultry Roman night.
Cerciello Rega and his partner had been trying to retrieve a backpack that the two Americans had stolen after losing 80 euros trying to buy cocaine. The backpack belonged to a man the Americans had met in a trendy Rome neighborhood earlier that evening and who had acted as a go-between with a drug dealer.
When the officers approached the two Americans near their hotel, a scuffle broke out that lasted less than 30 seconds, Calabretta reminded the jurors Saturday. While the 35-year-old officer was being stabbed, Natale-Hjorth tussled with a second officer, Andrea Varriale, but quickly managed to break free.
The crux of the case is whether the Americans were aware that the two people who approached them were police officers.
At a hearing this past week, Elder testified that he thought the two plainclothes officers were “thugs” sent by the middleman whose knapsack they had stolen, and that he and Natale-Hjorth had acted in self-defense after the two officers jumped them. He said he had “panicked” and stabbed Cerciello Rega, who he thought was trying to choke him.
Elder testified that the two officers did not identify themselves as carabinieri and that they did not show their badges when they approached him and Natale-Hjorth, a San Francisco school friend who had joined him for two days in Rome during the last leg of a summer trip in Europe.
Calabretta on Saturday challenged Elder’s account of the confrontation, noting that Varriale had testified last summer that the officers had identified themselves as law enforcement and shown their badges.
The prosecutor also contested the defense narrative that suggested that the two Americans had been unexpectedly tackled by the officers from behind. Instead, she said Saturday, the two officers had approached them head-on and had been assaulted by the defendants without a second thought.
“Cerciello had no time to react,” she said. “It was a violent, deadly, disproportionate attack.”
Elder had brought a knife to the encounter, a sign of his “homicidal intent,” she added.
In his statement to the court Monday, Elder said he had put the knife in the pocket of his hoodie because it made him “feel safer.”
After the confrontation, the two defendants returned to their nearby hotel unaware, they testified, of the seriousness of Cerciello Rega’s condition. They were arrested in their hotel room a few hours later.
In asking for a life sentence, Calabretta said that neither the young age of the defendants nor their lack of criminal records should mitigate “the seriousness of the crime.”
The two defendants have also been charged with extortion for asking for money and 1 gram of cocaine in exchange for the backpack.
Calabretta said Saturday that even though Natale-Hjorth had not wielded the knife that killed the officer, he was equally guilty, the mastermind of the plot to exchange the backpack for money.
His lawyer, Francesco Petrelli, said Saturday that the prosecutor had asked for “the wrong sanction for the wrong defendant in a wrong trial.”
A verdict is expected before the summer.
Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, declined to speak to reporters Saturday. Her lawyer, Massimo Ferrandino, said the prosecutor’s request resulted from an “exhaustive” investigation that would now be up to the jury to confirm.
“We look forward to justice being done,” he said.