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American students convicted of murdering Italian police officer

POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Two American students have been convicted of murdering an Italian police officer in an alleged drug deal gone wrong.

Late Wednesday, a jury in Rome found Finnegan Lee Elder, 21 and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20 guilty of stabbing Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega to death in July 2019. They were both given life sentences in prison.

Rosa Maria Esilio, Rega’s widow, responded to the verdict with gratitude. “We can only give thanks for the complicated work of the judges, thank our talented lawyers and all the people who really stood by Mario because they knew him, because he was everyone’s son, because he was everyone’s carabiniere,” she said after it was announced.

Elder’s lawyer Renato Borzone described the outcome as “a shame for Italy” and told journalists outside the court that he planned to appeal. “This sentence represents a shame for Italy, with a jury that does not want to see what came out during the investigation and in the trial. I’ve never seen such an indignant thing. We will appeal. We are talking about a 19-year-old boy who was assaulted.”

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta had argued that given the circumstances of the case, the two should receive the maximum sentence permitted under Italian law. Italy does not have a death penalty.

The 35-year-old officer Mario Cerciello Rega was stabbed eight times at 2 a.m. on July 26, 2019, in the Prati neighborhood of Rome, near the hotel where the two men were staying, police said in a statement at the time. Rega was declared dead later that night.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth had allegedly been sold crushed aspirin for $80, instead of a gram of cocaine, in the Trastevere district of Rome. When they found out they had been duped, police say, the then-teenagers stole a backpack from Sergio Brugiatelli, who had introduced them to the person who sold them the aspirin.

Police said Elder and Natale-Hjorth stabbed Rega when he and another officer attempted to recover the stolen backpack. The officers were unarmed and were not wearing uniforms.

The police said that Elder had confessed to stabbing Rega, but said he acted in self-defense. The two Americans, who were 19 and 18 at the time of their arrest, have said the officers attacked them first.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth have now been ordered into isolation for the next two months. Judge Marina Finiti also ordered that they pay for the other civil parties’ legal expenses and compensate for “damages” to Cerciello’s family, his policing partner, and Brugiatelli.

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