The fate of two American students accused of killing an Italian police officer will be decided by a Rome court this week in a case being closely watched in Italy.
Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 20, both from California, were in Rome on holiday when Mario Cerciello Rega was fatally stabbed on a street in the Italian capital in July 2019.
Cerciello Rega, who was 35, had only just returned to work after his honeymoon. A state funeral was held for the officer, who the prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta said was killed in a “disproportionate and deadly attack”.
Calabretta has called for the accused pair, who have been in prison since their arrest, to be given life sentences. “Life imprisonment is not a trophy to be exhibited but a just penalty … In the face of such tragic facts, nobody wins and nobody loses,” Calabretta said in her rebuttal to defence arguments in late April.
On 26 July 2019, Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times and his colleague, Andrea Varriale, was injured after the officers, both in plainclothes and without their service pistols, confronted Elder and Natale-Hjorth in the Prati district of Rome while investigating a bag snatch.
Elder, who had travelled to Italy with an 18cm (7in) combat knife in his suitcase, and Natale-Hjorth say they mistook the officers for criminals out to get them.
Earlier in the evening, the students had contacted a middleman to buy cocaine in Trastevere, a popular nightlife area. The middleman took them to a drug dealer, who sold them aspirin instead for €80. In retaliation they took the middleman’s bag, containing his mobile phone, and fled before allegedly demanding a cash ransom and cocaine to return the bag.
The middleman called his phone and arranged to meet the pair in the Prati district. He had also contacted the police to report the theft, and the two officers went to the site.
Elder has admitted stabbing Cerciello Rega multiple times, but said he and Natale-Hjorth were suddenly confronted by the men, who they thought were drug dealers.