United Kingdom

Lawyers vow to appeal sentences of two Americans found guilty of murdering an Italian cop

Lawyers for two Americans convicted of the murder of an Italian policeman have slammed the verdict, saying it represented a 'shame for Italy'.

Renato Borzone, vowed to appeal the decision by the First Court of Assizes of Rome to sentence Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, to life imprisonment.

The two California students were found guilty on Wednesday of the 2019 killing of Italian police officer Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, in a drug deal gone bad.

'This sentence represents a shame for Italy with judges who do not want to see what emerged during the investigation and the trial.

'I have never seen such an unworthy thing. We will appeal,' he said, claiming that his client, Elder, had been acting in self defense.

'This was a technically flawed sentence both in fact and in law, which cannot be confirmed at appeal, but which has left us shocked,' said lawyer Francesco Petrelli, who was defending Natale-Hjorth.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth have the right to two appeals before their sentence becomes definitive.

A jury in Rome deliberated for just over 12 hours before delivering the verdicts on Wednesday and handing the men Italy's stiffest sentence for Rega's murder.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth, who became friends while attending Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California, were found guilty on all charges: homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. 

A jury in Rome, Italy deliberated more than 12 hours before delivering the verdicts against Finnegan Lee Elder (left), 21, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth (right), 20, handing them Italy's stiffest sentence - life imprisonment

Finnegan Lee Elder listens to the verdict in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer on a street near the hotel where he and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were staying while on vacation in Rome in summer 2019, in Rome on Wednesday

The other American on trial, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, is escorted by police officers during the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer in summer 2019, in Rome, on Wednesday

Elder and Natale-Hjorth (pictured being escorted by police after court decision) were found guilty on all charges: homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause

'I have never seen such an unworthy thing. We will appeal,' Renato Borzone, the lawyer for Elder (pictured in court), said

Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Rega 11 times with a Rambo-style knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room.

The stabbing unfolded on July 26, 2019, after Natale-Hjorth and Elder tried to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) from a man outside the hotel where they were staying in Rome's Trastevere nightlife district, but were sold a crushed-up bag of aspirin instead. 

The pair then allegedly stole a bag belonging to the suspected drug dealer and demanded 100 euros and a gram of cocaine for him to get it back.

The man agreed and told the pair he would meet them to exchange the bag, but instead called police to report the theft. Rega and his partner, wearing plainclothes, were dispatched to the agreed meeting spot where they confronted the two Americans and identified themselves in Italian as police before Elder stabbed Rega. 

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of slain Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, reacts after Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were found guilty of the murder of her husband

Elder, 20, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, (right) were charged with stabbing Deputy Brigadier Rega to death in Rome. The pair are pictured here in a photo released by Italian Carabinieri

The pair, both from California, are accused of stabbing Cerciello to death in a botched drug deal while he and another officer were in plain clothes.

Prosecutors allege that the police officer was stabbed 11 times with a knife whose blade measures seven inches long

The victim's widow Rosa Maria Esilio was seen weeping as she left following the court decision in the trial of two US citizens on charges of murdering her husband, Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega

Rega's widow Rosa Maria Esilio, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, sobbed as she left after the court decision following a deliberation of more than 12 hours

Rega's widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, weeps in court after Elder and Natale-Hjorth were convicted on Wednesday

Rega's widow Rosa Maria Esilio, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, sobbed and hugged his brother Paolo as it was read out in court. 

'It has been a long and painful process. This will not bring Mario back to me. It will not bring him back to life, it will not give us back our lives together,' she said.

'Today the first stone has been laid for a new justice. Mario's integrity has been demonstrated despite in death he had to undergo many insinuations '. 

The defendants were led immediately out of the courtroom after hearing 'guilty' declared on all counts.  

As Elder was being walked out, his father Ethan Elder called out, 'Finnegan, I love you.'

Both men maintained their innocence and claimed they were jumped from behind by their alleged adversaries, whom they believed to be thugs sent by a drug dealer who had swindled them when they earlier tried to buy cocaine.

They both told investigators that they did not know Rega and his partner were police because they were not in uniform. 

The killing of the officer from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps - who had recently returned from his honeymoon - shocked Italy where he was mourned as a national hero.  

Finnegan Lee Elder listens as the verdict is read, in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer in summer 2019

Leah Lynn Elder (above), the mother of Finnegan Lee Elder, reacting after her son was found guilty of the murder of Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega

Finnegan Lee Elder was pictured listening to the verdict after a jury in Rome deliberated for just over 12 hours. Along with Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, they were handed Italy's stiffest sentence for the murder of Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega

Rosa Maria Esilio (right), widow of Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, waits for the verdict to be read in the trial in which two American tourists are accused of murdering her husband

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of slain Carabinieri military police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, was seen breaking town into floods of tears after Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were found guilty of the murder of her husband

Rosa Maria Esilio, widow of Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, is hugged by Paolo, the brother of Mario Cerciello Rega, after listening to the verdict

Rosa Maria Esilio burst into floods of tears after the court decision in the trial of two US citizens on charges of murdering her husband

Finnegan Lee Elder (left) was seen crying after the court decision on May 5 during his trial, which saw a jury in Rome deliberate for more than 12 hours

The murder sparked a national outcry. The funeral was held in the same church where Rega had married just months before

The image above was taken from surveillance video showing Elder and Hjorth fleeing the scene after the stabbing on July 26, 2019 in the Trastevere nightlife district of Rome

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

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consisted of 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 heavenward.

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.

While it was Elder who drove the knife into Rega, Natale-Hjorth faced the same charges because under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even without materially doing the slaying. 

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta demanded life imprisonment for both defendants.

Elder (left) and Natale-Hjorth (right) were on vacation together without their families when the killing happened

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (right) talks to his uncle Claudio Natale-Hjorth before a jury began deliberating his fate in Rome on Wednesday

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (right) talks to his uncle Claudio Natale-Hjorth before a jury began deliberating his fate in Rome on Wednesday

Elder's parents await the verdict in their son's trial on Wednesday in Rome

At the time of the slaying, 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 couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.

During the trial, which began on February 26, 2020, the defendants told the court that several hours before the stabbing, they had attempted to buy cocaine in the Trastevere nightlife district of Rome. 

With the intervention of a go-between, they paid a dealer, but instead of cocaine they received an aspirin-like tablet.

A leaked photo shows Natale-Hjorth handcuffed and blindfolded during a police interrogation 

Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a separate Carabinieri patrol in the neighbourhood 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. 

When they arrived at the set spot for the exchange with the dealer they were met instead by Rega, wearing a T-shirt and long shorts, and his partner Andrea Varriale, in a polo shirt and jeans. 

Prosecutors alleged that Elder thrust a seven-inch military-style attack knife repeatedly into Rega, who bled profusely, like a 'fountain,' Varriale had testified, and died shortly after in hospital.

Elder told the court that the heavy-set 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 told the court that they acted in self defense because they thought Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street.  

They said they didn't know the men were police because they didn't show their badges and spoke in Italian, which the defendants didn't understand.  

From practically its start, the trial largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors. 

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. 

As the trial neared its end, one of Elder's defense lawyers, Renato Borzone, argued in court 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.

Fabrizio Natale (right), the father of Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, and uncle Claudio Natale wait for the verdict to be read in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer on a street near the hotel where Finnegan Lee Elder and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjort were staying while on vacation in Rome in summer 2019

Ethan Elder (center) and his wife Leah Lynn Elder (left), the parents of Finnegan Lee Elder, react during the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer in Rome on Wednesday

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