US student accused of killing Rome policeman: 'I will never be able to forgive myself'

"Worst night of my life" American student tells court in Rome.

An American student on trial in Italy for the murder of a Rome policeman made an apology in court on 16 September, reports Italian news agency ANSA.

"I want to apologise to everyone, to Cerciello's family and to his friends. To the whole world. That night was the worst in my life and if I could go back to change things I would do it now, but I can't."

This was stated in court by Finnegan Lee Elder, the 20-year-old Californian on trial together with his friend Christian Natale Hjorth for the murder of Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old carabiniere who was stabbed 11 times in Rome in July 2019.

"I did not speak before due to lack of courage" - Elder told the court - "In prison I have had the opportunity and time to reflect. That night was the worst of my life, not because I am in prison, far away from everyone. The reasons are different:

"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."

Elder added that he didn't expect Cerciello's family to "forgive me today, it will be difficult, but I hope that one day they will be able to do so," reports ANSA.

Mario Cerciello Rega

In the early hours of 26 July 2019, Cerciello Rega and his colleague Andrea Varriale, both dressed in plain-clothes, had gone to investigate a drug deal gone wrong in Rome's upmarket Prati district.

Elder has admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega with an 18-cm serrated-edge combat knife but has insisted to investigators that he thought he and his friend were being attacked by drug dealers.

What happened prior to attack

A few hours before the attack Elder and Natale-Hjorth had been trying to buy cocaine in the popular night-life area of Trastevere.

A man described as an "intermediary" and 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 Prati, 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.

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.

Contradictory version of events

Varriale initially said that he and Cerciello Rega had been attacked by men of north African descent, as well as claiming that he had been armed. However it later transpired that both officers were unarmed and that they acted without backup, in violation of police procedure.

Shortly after the teens' arrest, a photo showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and restrained at a police station was leaked to the Italian media, attracting further controversy to the case.

Separately, defence lawyers for the US students say that transcripts of talks between Elder and his lawyer which were published in Italian media and suggested that he had confessed, were translated badly and appeared to omit parts of their conversation.

Outpouring of public sympathy

Cerciello Rega's murder received widespread attention in Italy where he was portrayed as a hero. He had only just returned to duty from his honeymoon, and massive crowds turned out for his funeral at the same church where he had been married just 43 days before.

The case continues.

Photo Reuters