ROME — Italy’s highest court late on Wednesday ordered two American tourists to stand a new trial for the 2019 killing of a police officer in central Rome following a botched attempt to buy drugs, but upheld a murder sentence for one of them.
Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were convicted in 2021 and sentenced to life terms over the stabbing death of Mario Cerciello Rega. The sentences were reduced last year to 24 years for Elder and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth.
The Rome-based Court of Cassation said Elder was guilty of murder, but ordered a new trial because some related allegations were not sufficiently corroborated.
Cerciello Rega, 35, who was not armed at the time, was stabbed 11 times by Elder, then 19, with a 7-inch blade that he had brought with him from the United States, police said.
The court said Natale-Hjorth, then 18, should stand trial again because there was not enough evidence of his complicity in the killing. He did not handle the murder weapon during the attack but was tussling with the second police officer, Andrea Varriale.
The court, which only rules on whether the laws have been correctly applied and not on the merits of a case, said there was not enough evidence the two tourists were aware they had police in front of them, something they both deny.
“From the first minute we examined the court papers, we realised that Elder had absolutely no idea that he was facing two police officials. That intervention was anomalous. This decision could have a great influence on the penalty,” said Elder’s lawyer, Renato Borzone.
The two Americans, both from California, were in Italy on vacation, and tried to buy drugs from a local dealer in a Rome tourist hotspot. They have said they were cheated, but managed to grab a bag off an intermediary as he tried to escape.
They subsequently agreed to meet the dealer again to get their money back in exchange for the bag, but instead the two policemen showed up in plain clothes.
Elder has admitted killing Cerciello Rega, but both he and Natale-Hjorth said they had acted in self-defense because they thought the two policemen were thugs out to get them.
“We are very satisfied with the outcome. We finally have someone who has heard our reasons. Now a new page in the trial is opened,” said Natale-Hjorth’s lawyer, Fabio Alonzi.