Marin Men Found Guilty of Killing Police Officer in Rome Face New Trial

Marin Men Found Guilty of Killing Police Officer in Rome Face New Trial
Marin Men Found Guilty of Killing Police Officer in Rome Face New Trial (Credits: SF Gate)

Two Bay Area men who were convicted of killing a police officer in Rome are facing a new trial to ascertain their understanding of the chaotic events that transpired in the summer of 2019.

Italy’s highest Cassation Court mandated a retrial last year, stating that it hadn’t been conclusively proven whether the defendants comprehended that they were dealing with Italian law enforcement officers when they went to meet an alleged drug dealer.

Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were 19 and 18, respectively, when they embarked on a trip to Italy following their graduation from Tamalpais High in Mill Valley the preceding year. On July 26, 2019, the duo attempted to purchase cocaine from a local dealer in Trastevere, a nightlife district in Rome.

As per police reports, Elder and Natale-Hjorth became agitated when the individual who arrived for the drug transaction failed to provide them with cocaine. In response, they purportedly stole the man’s backpack and demanded 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to return it. Unbeknownst to them, the man was an informant for the Carabinieri; subsequently, he reported being robbed to the police.

Marin Men Found Guilty of Killing Police Officer in Rome Face New Trial
Marin Men Found Guilty of Killing Police Officer in Rome Face New Trial (Credits: SF Gate)

The informant arranged another meeting with the Bay Area teens. During this encounter, around 2:30 a.m., two plainclothes police officers, Carabinieri Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega and Andrea Varriale, intervened.

Prosecutors contend that the officers identified themselves as law enforcement and displayed their badges but were promptly attacked by the teens. Cerciello Rega succumbed to multiple stab wounds inflicted by Elder, who allegedly concealed the military-style knife in the ceiling panels of his hotel room thereafter.

Although Natale-Hjorth did not directly participate in stabbing Cerciello Rega, under Italian law, he was held equally accountable.

The tragic death of 35-year-old newlywed Cerciello Rega deeply affected Italians, who mourned him as a national hero.

Attorneys for Elder and Natale-Hjorth argued that the officers failed to properly identify themselves, asserting that the fatal altercation was an act of self-defense by Elder, who was unable to comprehend Italian at the time. Natale-Hjorth, born in Italy and relocated to the United States as a child, holds dual citizenship.

Both men were convicted of murder in 2021 and sentenced to life imprisonment, the most severe penalty under Italy’s legal system. Their sentences were later reduced to 24 years for Elder and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth upon appeal.

In March of last year, their appeal proved successful, prompting the Cassation Court to order a retrial due to the prosecution’s failure to demonstrate that the defendants were aware Cerciello Rega was a police officer.

“Our strategy remains unchanged,” stated Elder’s lawyer Roberto Capra to The Associated Press. “We have consistently argued that Elder was unaware he was confronting a police officer… This fundamentally alters the entire reconstruction of the incident, and we believe it will impact the sentencing.”

The upcoming hearing is scheduled for April 10, during which the general prosecutor will present their indictment. Subsequent hearings are slated for May, with legal representatives anticipating the trial’s conclusion before the summer.

Both men are currently incarcerated in separate prisons. Their lawyers revealed during a hearing that they are undergoing Italian language instruction and have enrolled in university courses while in detention.

“What matters to us is that the defendants’ culpability is clarified,” expressed Franco Coppi, the lawyer representing the Cerciello Rega family to AP. “From the outset, we have maintained that there are no vindictive motives or a desire to punish at all costs.”

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