Crime and Courts

Italian court upholds conviction of 2 Californians in death of policeman but reduces sentences

The fatal confrontation happened in Rome when the former Bay Area classmates arranged to meet a small-time drug dealer, who turned out to be a police informant

Finnegan Lee Elder, left, and co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, right, sit before a jury began deliberating their fate in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer on a street near the hotel where they were staying while on vacation in Rome in summer 2019, in Rome, Wednesday, May 5, 2021.
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

An Italian appeals court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of two American men in the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer during a botched sting operation but reduced their sentences. The new trial was ordered after Italy’s highest court threw out their convictions.

The court convicted Lee Elder Finnegan and sentenced him to 15 years and 2 months in prison and gave a sentence of 11 years and four months, along with a 800 euro ($863) fine to Gabriele Natale-Hjorth.

They were found guilty in the July 2019 slaying of Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and after the first trial, both were sentenced to life in prison, Italy's harshest penalty. Those sentences were reduced on appeal, and last year, Italy’s highest Cassation Court ordered a retrial.

In the new trial, prosecutors asked that Finnegan be sentenced to 23 years and nine months and Natale-Hjorth to 23 years.

Teenagers at the time of the slaying, the former schoolmates from the Bay Area had met up in Rome to spend a few days vacationing. The fatal confrontation took place after they arranged to meet a small-time drug dealer, who turned out to have been a police informant, to recover money lost in a bad deal. Instead, they were confronted by the officers.

Cerciello Riga was stabbed 11 times with a knife brought from the hotel room.

In ordering the retrial, the Cassation Court said it hadn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants, with limited Italian language skills, had understood that they were dealing with Italian police officers when they went to meet the alleged drug dealer in Rome.

The defense had argued that the defendants didn’t know they were facing law enforcement when the attack happened, an argument their lawyers repeated during the new trial.

In a statement released by lawyers after the new verdicts, Leah Elder, Finnegan Elder’s mother, insisted that her son didn’t know he had police officers in front of him but said he was prepared to take responsibility for his actions.

“This trial is unfortunately connected to the tragedy of a person’s death, a grave fact that has marked and will forever mark the lives of all the families involved,” she said. “Bringing out the truth of the facts would help Finnegan take full responsibility for the pain he caused with his tragic reaction. I hope that, even as he pays for his mistake, he will also open up to hope for the future.”

The killing of the officer in the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy and the 35-year-old Cerciello Rega was mourned as a national hero.

Prosecutors alleged Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega with a knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without carrying out the slaying.

Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their failed attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified they had paid for the cocaine but didn’t receive it.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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