Rome jury convicts 2 US friends in slaying of police officer

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Finnegan Lee Elder listens as the verdict is read, in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer in summer 2019, in Rome, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. A jury in Rome on Wednesday convicted two American friends in the 2019 slaying of a police officer in a drug sting gone awry, sentencing them to life in prison. The jury deliberated more than 12 hours before delivering the verdicts against Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 20, handing them Italy's stiffest sentence. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME – A jury in Italy convicted two American friends in the 2019 slaying in Rome of a police officer in a tragic unraveling of a small-time drug deal gone bad, sentencing them to the maximum life in prison.

More than 12 hours after deliberations began, the jury of two judges and six civilians delivered verdicts and sentences Wednesday night that set off a collective gasp in the courtroom: Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, former schoolmates from the San Francisco area, were each found guilty of murder and four other counts and received Italy's stiffest punishment, life imprisonment.

Each had been charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. Presiding Judge Marina Finiti announced the jury found them guilty of all the charges in the trial indictment.

Prosecutors alleged Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without materially doing the slaying.

The July 26, 2019, killing of the officer in the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.

The slain officer’s widow, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, broke down in tears and hugged his brother, Paolo.

“His integrity was defended,” Rosa Maria Esilio said outside the courtroom, between sobs. “He was everyone’s son, everyone’s Carabiniere. He was a marvelous husband, he was a marvelous man, a servant of the state who deserves respect and honor.”

As the defendants were led out of the courtroom to be taken back to their jail cells, Elder's father, Ethan Elder, called out, “Finnegan, I love you.” As the parents left the courtroom, as midnight neared, his mother, Leah Elder, sat on a curb, looking dazed, holding her head.