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Rome court cuts jail terms of Americans over killing of Italian police officer

Appeals court upholds convictions of Lee Elder Finnegan and Gabriele Natale-Hjorth.

Two American men convicted of the 2019 killing of an Italian police officer in Rome had their sentences reduced significantly by an appeals court on Wednesday.


The Rome court upheld the convictions of Lee Elder Finnegan and Gabriele Natale-Hjorth for the killing of 35-year-old carabiniere Mario Cerciello Rega in a botched attempt to buy drugs.


Elder's jail sentence was reduced from 24 years to 15 years and two months while Natale-Hjorth's sentence was halved from 22 years to 11 years and four months.


In 2022 an appeals court reduced Elder's life sentence to 24 years, for stabbing plainclothes officer Cerciello Rega to death, while Natale-Hjorth had his life sentence reduced to 22 years.


In March 2023 the Court of Cassation ordered a new trial, saying that it hadn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had understood that they were dealing with police officers.


Elder has admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega but both Americans insist they thought they were facing drug dealers, not police.


Background to the case


On the night of 26 July 2019 the two Californians, on holiday in Italy, met up in Rome and tried to buy cocaine in the popular night-life area of Trastevere.


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


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


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


During the altercation Elder used an 18-cm serrated-edge combat knife to stab Cerciello Rega, who was not armed, while Natale-Hjorth wrestled with Varriale.


Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times, later dying from his wounds in hospital.


The next day police tracked down Elder and Natale-Hjorth to a nearby hotel where the murder weapon was found concealed behind a ceiling panel.


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


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


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