US men await their fate as murder trial nears end in Rome

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FILE -- In this April 29, 2021 file photo, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, left, and his co-defendant Finnegan Lee Elder, both from the United States, wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 as they sit during a break of a hearing of their trial in Rome. A jury will soon be weighing the fate of the two young American men, charged with slaying an Italian police officer while they were on holiday in 2019. (Remo Casilli/Pool Photo via AP)

ROME – The pandemic was just bearing down on Italy when the trial began of two young American men, charged with the murder of an Italian police officer near their hotel while they were on vacation in 2019.

On Wednesday, after more than 14 months, defense lawyers will wrap up their arguments, and the two defendants, former schoolmates from California, can expect to learn their fates later in the week.

Finnegan Lee Elder, now 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, insisted they acted in self-defense. They say they thought they were being attacked by a pair of thugs or mafiosi when Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and fellow officer Andrea Varriale approached them wearing plainclothes in the early hours of July 26, 2019.

The officers had been dispatched to follow up on a report of a small-scale extortion attempt, allegedly devised by the Americans in reprisal for a botched drug deal when the young men were out in Trastevere, a nightlife district in Rome, earlier in the night.

The case has largely come down to the testimony of Varriale, who insisted the officers identified themselves as police, against that of the young men, who according to their own accounts, had spent the evening drinking beers and shots and trying in vain to buy cocaine. Neither officer brought his service pistol to the rendezvous.

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

Elder told the court that the heavy-set Cerciello Rega was scuffling on top of him and he feared the officer was trying to strangle him, so he pulled out the knife and stabbed him. When the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed again.

Under Italian law, alleged accomplices can also be charged with homicide even if prosecutors admit they had no material role in the actual slaying. The prosecutor in her final arguments asked the court to convict both defendants and sentence them to life imprisonment, Italy’s harshest criminal penalty.