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Jury considers verdict on Americans charged with killing Rome policeman

Rosa Maria Esilio, right, widow of Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, sits near her lawyers in the trial in which two American tourists are accused of murdering her husband, in Rome, Wednesday, May 5, 2021 (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Frances D'Emilio, Associated Press

A jury in Rome has begun deliberations in the trial of two young American men charged with killing an Italian police officer near the hotel where they were staying while on holiday in 2019.

Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, are charged with homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause.

Judge Marina Finiti indicated the verdicts could come later on Wednesday or on Thursday.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife he brought with him on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room.

The July 26 2019 death of the officer from the Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Mr Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero.

The two Californians on trial were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consists of presiding judge Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors.

“I’m stressed,” Elder said to one of his lawyers. At another point during Wednesday’s brief court hearing, Elder took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it.

Mr Cerciello Rega had recently returned from a honeymoon when he was assigned along with a plain-clothes partner, officer Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt.

Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and mobile phone after their attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district did not pan out. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified they had paid for the cocaine but did not receive it.

Both defendants said they acted in self-defence.

During the trial, which began on February 26 2020, the Americans told the court they thought that Mr Cerciello Rega and Mr Varriale were thugs or mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street. The officers wore casual summer clothes and not uniforms, and the defendants insisted the officers never showed police badges.

Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder.

Mr Varriale, who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner was grappling with Elder, testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri.

Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta has asked the court to convict both defendants and to mete out Italy’s stiffest punishment of life imprisonment.

At the time of the slaying, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome.

Former classmates from the San Francisco Bay area, the two had met up in Rome for what was supposed to be couple of days of sightseeing and nights out.

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