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American students jailed for life for murder of policeman in Italy

Two Americans have been handed Italy's toughest punishment possible for the murder of a policeman in 2019 in a case that shook the nation.

An Italian court has sentenced two American students to life in prison for the murder of a policeman in Rome in 2019.

The verdict, handed down late on 5 May, saw the conviction of Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, for the fatal stabbing 35-year-old carabinere Mario Cerciello Rega.

The killing of Cerciello Rega, who had just returned from honeymoon, shocked Italy and led to a massive outpouring of public sympathy for his widow.

Huge crowds turned out for his funeral at the same church where he had been married 43 days before.

Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth in court. Photo LaPresse.

Elder, who was 19 at the time, admitted to stabbing Rega, apologising in court last September, but has insisted that he and Natale-Hjorth did not know that Rega and his carabiniere colleague were police officers.

Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times with an 18-cm serrated-edge combat knife, while Natale-Hjorth, then aged 18, fought with the other police officer, Andrea Varriale.

However the Americans insist they acted in self defence because they thought the two officers, both unarmed and dressed in plain-clothes at the time, were thugs sent to beat them up after a botched attempt to buy drugs earlier that night.

The pair's testimony was rejected by the court which handed down the toughest penalty possible in Italy after 13 hours of deliberation, in a trial that has seen more than 50 hearings.

Cerciello Rega's widow Rosa Maria Esilio on hearing the verdict. Photo Reuters.

Under Italy's penal code, criminals serving life terms can be eligible for parole after 21 years, if they have a good behaviour record, according to Reuters.

The defence lawyers immediately said they would appeal, Reuters reports, and the two Americans have the right to two appeals before their sentence becomes definitive.

“A severe sentence but corresponding to the atrocious crime that was committed," said the lawyer representing Cerciello Rega's family, while the lawyer defending Natale-Hjorth described the verdict as "an unjust and incomprehensible sentence," reports Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Cerciello Rega's widow Rosa Maria Esilio, clutching a photograph of her dead husband, was in the courtroom and broke down in tears on hearing the verdict, reports The Guardian.

Time line of events leading to the fatal attack

Elder and Natale-Hjorth, both from California, were tourists in Italy in the summer of 2019 and met up in Rome on 26 July 2019.

That night the two Americans had been trying to buy cocaine in the popular night-life area of Trastevere.

A man described as an "intermediary," subsequently identified as Sergio Brugiatelli, helped them find a dealer who allegedly sold them crushed aspirin instead of drugs.

In retaliation the students stole Brugiatelli's rucksack, demanding the return of their money plus a gram of cocaine in exchange.

However Brugiatelli informed the police of the situation, with undercover officers Cerciello Rega and Varriale going to the designated meeting place in the upmarket Prati district, in place of Brugiatelli.

Elder claims that they were jumped from behind by the officers who they believed were criminal associates of Brugiatelli.

Varriale has said that he and Cerciello Rega, both unarmed, told the young men they were police, but that Elder pulled out a knife and attacked Cerciello Rega, while Natale-Hjorth wrestled with Varriale.

Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. Photo Il Mattino.

In the ensuing 32-second brawl Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times, later dying from his wounds in nearby S. Spirito hospital.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth fled the scene but were tracked down the next day to a hotel, in the same area as the attack, where police found the military knife hidden behind a ceiling panel.

Last September Elder apologised to Cerciello Rega's family in court, saying: "I took a person's life, I took a husband from his wife, I broke a bond between brothers. And I took a son from his mother. I will never be able to forgive myself for all this."

Cover photo AFP

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