Italian Prosecutor Asks for Life in Prison for 2 Americans Charged With Killing Police Officer

An Italian prosecutor asked for life in prison for two Americans charged with killing an Italian police officer in 2019 while on summer vacation as a jury began deliberating on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta wants Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, both of California, to serve the maximum sentence after each was charged with homicide, assault, attempted extortion, resisting a public official and unjustifiably carrying an attack-style knife in Rome's Trastevere nightlife district.

"Unfortunately, we didn't expect anything different, given the anomalies we have seen in the course of this investigation directed at portraying facts in a different way from the way they evolved,″ Elder's defense lawyer, Renato Borzone, said in early March when he heard that Calabretta was seeking life in prison, AP said.

Elder was accused of stabbing Carabinieri paramilitary police corps Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times on July 26, 2019, with a knife he brought to Italy.

Cerciello Rega, 35, who had recently returned to Italy after his honeymoon, was responding to a report of an extortion attempt with his plain-clothes partner, Officer Andrea Varriale.

Prosecutors said Elder and Natale-Hjorth stole a bag with a cellphone inside after a failed attempt to buy cocaine.

Both Americans have maintained that they acted in self-defense because they thought Cerciello Rega and Varriale were approaching thugs and argued that the officers did not show their badges.

Although Natale-Hjorth did not stab Cerciello Rega, under Italian law he can be charged with murder as an accomplice to Elder.

Judge Marina Finiti indicated the verdicts could come later Wednesday or on Thursday.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Americans Accused of Killing Italian Officer
Americans Finnegan Lee Elder (right) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, the two men accused of the killing of an Italian Carabinieri police officer, attend a hearing during their trial in Rome, on March 1, 2021. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

Prosecutors alleged that Natale-Hjorth helped Elder hide the knife in their hotel room.

The slaying of Cerciello Rega from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. He was mourned as a national hero.

The two Californians were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consists of the presiding judge, Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors.

"I'm stressed," Elder said to one of his lawyers. Just before the brief court appearance, Elder took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it. He also turned to his co-defendant, Natale-Hjorth, and held out the crucifix toward him through a glass partition, motioning toward heaven.

Elder was joined in the courtroom by his parents. He and his father crossed their fingers toward each other for good luck after the jury went to deliberate. Natale-Hjorth was greeted by his Italian uncle, who lives in Italy.

The Americans failed 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.

During the trial, which began on February 26, 2020, the Americans told the court they thought that Cerciello Rega and Varriale were mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street. The officers wore casual summer clothes and not uniforms.

Varriale, who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner was grappling with Elder, testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri.

At the time of the killing, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. Former schoolmates from the San Francisco Bay area, the two had met up in Rome for what was supposed to be a couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder repeatedly thrust a 7-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely, like a "fountain," Varriale testified, and died shortly after in hospital.

Elder told the court that the heavy-set Cerciello Rega, scuffling with him, was on top of him on the ground, and he feared that he was being strangled. Elder said he pulled out the knife and stabbed him to avoid being killed, and when the officer didn't immediately let him go, he stabbed again.

After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and then asked him to hide it. Natale-Hjorth testified that he hid the knife behind a ceiling panel in their room, where it was discovered hours later by police.

The defendants had told the court that several hours before the stabbing, they attempted to buy cocaine. With the intervention of a go-between, they paid a dealer, but instead of cocaine, they received an aspirin-like tablet.

Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a separate Carabinieri patrol in the neighborhood intervened, and all scattered. The Americans snatched the go-between's knapsack in reprisal, and used a cellphone that was inside to set up a meeting with the goal of exchanging the bag and the phone for the cash they had lost in the bad drug deal.

Meanwhile, Cerciello Rega, wearing a T-shirt and long shorts, and Varriale, in a polo shirt and jeans, headed out to follow up on what was described as a small-scale extortion attempt. They didn't carry their service pistols.

From practically its start, the trial largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors. The victim's widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, would sit in the front row, often clutching a photo of her husband. Photos of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega in his dress uniform, after their wedding, were widely displayed in Italian media after the slaying.

As the trial neared its end, Borzone argued that deep-set psychiatric problems, including a constant fear of being attacked, figured in the fatal stabbing. Borzone told the court his client saw a world filled with enemies due to psychiatric problems and that something "short-circuited" when Elder was confronted by the officer.

Finnegan Lee Elder, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth
Finnegan Lee Elder (right) shows a crucifix to co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth before a jury began deliberating their fate in their trial in the killing of an Italian plain-clothes 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. Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo