Italian appeals court reduces sentences for 2 Americans convicted of killing policeman

An Italian appeals court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of two American men in the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer during a botched sting operation but reduced their sentences. The new trial was ordered after Italy’s highest court threw out their original convictions.

The court convicted Finnegan Lee Elder and sentenced him to 15 years and 2 months in prison and gave a sentence of 11 years to Gabriele Natale-Hjorth.

They were found guilty in the July 2019 slaying of Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega. Prosecutors had asked that Elder be sentenced to 23 years and nine months and 23 years for Natale-Hjorth.

Teenagers at the time of the slaying, the former schoolmates from the San Francisco Bay area had met up in Rome to spend a few days vacationing. The fatal confrontation took place after they arranged to meet a small-time drug dealer, who turned out to have been a police informant, to recover money lost in a bad deal. Instead, they were confronted by the officers.

Italy Slain Officer
Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, right, and Finnegan Lee Elder attend their appeal trial for the 2019 killing of Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome, on March. 8, 2024. 

Gregorio Borgia/AP

Cerciello Riga was stabbed 11 times with a knife brought from a hotel room.

Italy’s highest Cassation Court ordered a new trial last year, saying it hadn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants, with limited Italian language skills, had understood that they were dealing with Italian police officers when they went to meet an alleged drug dealer in Rome.

The defense had argued that the defendants didn’t know they were facing law enforcement when the attack happened.

The highest court threw out Elder’s conviction and 24-year sentence and asked the appeals court to consider the charge of resisting an officer. For Natale-Hjorth, the appeals court was ordered to look at the charge of complicity to commit murder.

The killing of the officer in the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.

Prosecutors alleged Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega with a knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder without carrying out the slaying.

Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their failed attempt to buy cocaine with $96 in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified they had paid for the cocaine but didn’t receive it.

This story has been updated to correct Finnegan Lee Elder’s name.

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