The parents of one of two American men jailed for life for murdering a newlywed police officer in Rome say his sentence is 'too harsh' because their son is a 'gentle soul' with 'mental health issues'.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were sentenced to life in prison last week for the July 2019 death of Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, with Elder's mother Leah branding the sentence disproportionate on Monday.
The two Californian men were teenagers at the time. They bought what they thought was cocaine from a drug dealer after being introduced to him by middleman Sergio Brugiatelli. When the teens realized what they'd actually bought was crushed aspirin, they stole Brugiatelli's backpack.
Brugiatelli called the cops and it was Rega who responded with his partner, in plain clothes. They arranged to meet the teenagers and Rega, newly married, was stabbed to death by Finnegan while Gabriel watched.
Finnegan has always claimed he did not know Rega was a cop, and thought instead he was another member of the drug gang.
He says he was acting in self-defense, in fear of his life, and that is why he stabbed him 11 times with a 7-inch combat knife.
On Monday, Finnegan's parents insisted to Good Morning America that he had been mischaracterized by the Italian judicial system and that he is in fact 'sweet and gentle'.
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Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, (right) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, (left) were sentenced to life in prison last week for the July 2019 death of Mario Cerciello Rega, 35. They are shown in court in April, with Elder's parents blasting his 'harsh' sentence
Leah and Ethan, who live in California, said on Monday morning their son doesn't deserve the life sentence and that he is a 'gentle soul'
Finnegan stabbed Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, 11 times, according to prosecutors, in a drug deal gone wrong in July 2019
They said it wasn't fair for him to receive Italy's most severe prison term, and that his sentence instead ought to reflect his 'mental health issues'.
'There's a lot of things in Finn's reality now in prison that I just cant think about it's too hard it's too painful.
'He feels like he has been sentenced to something worse than the death penalty.
'Finnegan, first and foremost, has an incredibly kind and very gentle soul. He is honest to the point of, I used to say that when he was younger, he vomits the truth.
'He does not see a reason to lie.
'He's incredibly kind, sensitive and painfully honest,' his mother, Leah, said.
She added: 'I understand that a man's life was lost that night.
'I understand that Finnegan should serve some time.
'I would like Finnegan to have some sort of sentence that is proportionate and at least have something that acknowledges his mental health issues.'
The mom did not comment further on what type of prison sentence she would deem appropriate for the murder.
His father Ethan said: 'Watching your son mature in prison is very hard.
'This tragedy that happened, it's changed us all.'
Finnegan speaking with his parents through bars last week, while the jury was deliberating. He looked shaken after being convicted and sentenced to life behind bars
Finnegan's mom Leah said on Monday that while she 'understands' her son murdered someone, he shouldn't spend the rest of his life in prison. His father Ethan said: 'This tragedy that happened, it's changed us all'
The family's attorney, Craig Peters, added: 'They gave him a sentence that is befitting of a mafia boss who...kills innocent people.
'How could these two boys possibly be in that same league?'
Lawyer Francesco Petrelli, who was defending Natale-Hjorth, said last week that the sentence is 'technically flawed'.
'Both in fact and in law, which cannot be confirmed at appeal, but which has left us shocked,' he said.
They say they are appealing.
Neither Cerciello Rega nor his fellow plainclothes partner Andrea Varriale brought their service pistols on their assignment.
Elder (left) and Natale-Hjorth (right) were on vacation together without their families when the killing happened
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
Prosecutors allege that the police officer was stabbed 11 times with a knife whose blade measures seven inches long
The two California students were found guilty on Wednesday of the 2019 killing of Italian police officer Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, (pictured with his wife) in a drug deal gone bad.
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
A top Carabinieri official has said it was unknown why Cerciello Rega left his pistol in his locker.
Varriale, who scuffled with Natale-Hjorth, offered various versions, eventually testifying that he, too, didn't bring his weapon.
Varriale claimed the two officers showed their police badges while the Americans said they didn't and that they thought the Italians were drug dealers or mafiosi.
Not infrequently, Italian appeals courts either throw out earlier convictions or significantly reduce the sentences.
One noted example of that involved an American student, Amanda Knox, and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.
In that case, Italy´s top criminal Cassation court scathingly faulted prosecutors for presenting a flawed and hastily constructed case. It threw out their lower court convictions for the 2007 murder of her British roommate in Italy.
Had they lost their final appeal, Knox would have faced 28½ years in an Italian prison; the Italian, 25 years.
At the Italian appeals level, Peters said, 'hopefully we will have more sophisticated, more experienced, more reasonable and rational judges who will actually do the hard work of trying to make sense of all this and then fairly apportion justice.'
Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth are pictured awaiting the verdict Wednesday. They were found guilty for the murder of Italian police officer Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, back in 2019