Two American citizens who killed an Italian police officer during a botched sting operation will stand a new trial in Rome, the country’s highest court has decided.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 23, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 22, were convicted in 2021 for the death of Carabiniere Mario Cerciello Rega while the Americans visited Rome in July 2019. They were initially sentenced to life but the terms were reduced to 24 years for Elder and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth last year.
Cerciello Rega, 35, was stabbed 11 times by Elder with a knife he had brought with him from the US while Natale-Hjorth scuffled with a second police officer. They testified in court that they acted in self-defence because they believed Cerciello Rega and his partner — who were in plainclothes — were thugs.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth had earlier tried to buy $115 worth of cocaine from a drug dealer but were instead sold crushed aspirin, according to the Associated Press. They robbed the drug dealer of a backpack and arranged to meet with him to get their money back but instead, the officers showed up.
On Wednesday, the Court of Cassation ruled the Americans must stand a new trial. The court upheld Elder’s guilty murder verdict but ordered a new trial due to some allegations that were not sufficiently proved during the previous trial, NBC reported.
Meanwhile, the court found that there was not enough evidence of Natale-Hjorth’s complicity as he did not touch the murder weapon and was engaged in a physical altercation with the other officer as Cerciello Rega was killed.
In the upcoming weeks, the Court of Cassation will issue its reasons for the verdict and instruct an appeals court on the matters to examine in the new trial. The court also found that evidence that the Americans were aware Cerciello Rega and his partner were police officers is insufficient.
“From the first minute we examined the court papers, we realised that Elder had absolutely no idea that he was facing two police officials. That intervention was anomalous. This decision could have a great influence on the penalty,” Elder’s attorney Renato Borzone said, per NBC.
On the day of the tragedy, Elder and Natale-Hjorth scheduled to meet a drug dealer who had reportedly stolen from them on a street corner at 3am. Unbeknownst to the men, then teenagers, local authorities were contacted and the two plainclothes officers arrived at the planned meeting point.
Elder alleged that he used the knife in self-defence to break free because Cerciello Rega, who was unarmed, tried to strangle him.
Natale-Hjorth claimed that he grappled with Cerciello Rega’s partner Andrea Varriale but was unaware of the stabbing when he ran back to a hotel, where he and Elder were arrested later.
Mr Varriale testified that the two officers had identified themselves clearly as Carabinieri but that they were immediately attacked without cause.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were both convicted of murder, attempted extortion, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause.