US students convicted of Rome police officer’s murder hope appeal yields ‘truth’

Lawyers and family of two young American men convicted of murdering a police officer in Rome said they are hoping for a better outcome in the defendants’ appeals trial, which began on Thursday in the Italian capital.

Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, who had just returned from his honeymoon, was hailed as a national hero after he was stabbed 11 times in the street while on a plainclothes mission in July 2019, near the hotel where the two US tourists were staying.

Finnegan Elder, now 22, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, were convicted in May 2021 of slaying the 35-year-old officer, as well as of attempted extortion, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause.

Since the two young men, who had been friends back home in California, were given Italy’s harshest punishment – life imprisonment – the defendants’ essentially have nothing to lose in seeking the appeals trial.

“We trust in the Italian justice system,” Elder’s mother, Leah Elder, told the Associated Press before heading over to the courthouse on Thursday. “We hope that the anomalies and the inconsistencies that were revealed in the first trial will be brought to light. We really hope that the truth of that night will be shown.”

In the first trial, the defendants testified that neither Cerciello Rega nor his plainclothes partner identified themselves as police and that they thought the Italians, wearing casual summer clothes, were thugs.

Elder testified that Cerciello Rega was trying to strangle him, so he pulled out a knife he carried for his own protection and repeatedly stabbed the officer to break free.

Natale-Hjorth testified that he grappled with Cerciello Rega’s partner, then broke free, ran back to the hotel and was unaware of the stabbing during the struggle.

In Italy, an accomplice can also be charged with murder without materially perpetrating the slaying.

The plainclothes officers were pursuing a reported extortion attempt allegedly concocted by the Americans after a botched attempt to buy cocaine a few hours earlier in another part of Rome, the Trastevere nightlife district.

Appeals court judge Andrea Calabria rejected requests by media, including the Associated Press, to cover the latest trial. He cited the small size of the courtroom and the lack of windows to allow ventilation from outdoors during the pandemic.

Renato Borzone, one of Elder’s lawyers, told the AP as he headed into Thursday’s trial session that the defense team aims “to get justice. We believe that there were mistakes, evidence improperly evaluated” in the first trial.

The first court, in issuing the required verdict explanation a few weeks after the convictions, dismissed arguments of self-defense as patently implausible and rejected the defendants’ arguments that the officers did not identify themselves as police.

The court also cited Cerciello Rega’s “professionalism, dedication to work, experience on the streets, his humanity” in reasoning that the officer would have no reason to try to strangle Elder.

The killed officer’s partner, Officer Andrea Varriale, testified that neither policeman brought his service gun to the scene and insisted they showed their police badges.

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