Court experts: US youth "sorry" in police slaying trial

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Gabriel Natale Hjorth, from the United States, center, arrives in the courtroom where he is standing trial for the killing of Italian Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, in Rome, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Two tourists from California are accused of murdering Cerciello during their summer vacation in Italy in July 2019. (Andreas Solaro/Pool via AP)

ROME – Court-appointed psychiatrists testified Wednesday that a 20-year-old California man accused of murdering an Italian police officer has suffered from anxiety and depression and lives with “a sense of chronic anger” but is competent to stand trial.

An evaluation was requested by defense lawyers for Finnegan Lee Elder, who has been on trial in Rome since February for the slaying of a plainclothes Carabinieri officer.

Also charged with the the murder of Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello is Elder's fellow Californian and former schoolmate Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19. The two were visiting Italy as tourists and staying at a hotel near the site of the killing when Cerciello was fatally stabbed almost a year ago.

Both denied wrongdoing and told investigators they thought they were defending themselves from criminals when they encountered Cerciello and another Carabiniere during a planned rendezvous over a drug deal gone bad in the early hours of July 26, 2019.

Cerciello, who was sent to the street meeting with his patrol partner shortly after returning from his honeymoon, was stabbed 11 times. He was hailed as a national hero at his funeral.

Prosecutors alleged that Elder fatally knifed Cerciello and that Natale-Hjorth hid the weapon.

Psychiatrist Vittorio Fineschi testified that at the moment of the slaying, Elder “fully realized what he was doing; he said so himself to us.”

But psychiatrist Stefano Ferracuti said Elder also told them he thought he was defending himself from a "Mafioso,'' a way of describing a criminal from an American point of view,.

In the Italian judicial system, defendants can be excused from their trials if they are judged incapable of ‘’understanding and wanting" to commit the crime of which they stand charged.

Ferracuti told the court that cognitive tests showed Elder is “very intelligent." But when pressed by a lawyer for the slain officer's relatives, the psychiatrist said that “understanding is one thing. Wanting (to do so) is another."

Ferracuti also testified that Elder thought he was defending himself from a criminal, not a police officer, and "realizes he ruined his life and he's sorry.”

While the psychiatrists described Elder’s history of anxiety, depression and, as Ferracuti put it, “a sense of chronic anger,” a defense lawyer told the court that Elder was feeling troubled and unwell and had asked to be taken back to his jail cell.

Prosecutors have accused Natale-Hjorth of hiding the murder weapon, a military-style attack knife that Elder allegedly brought in a suitcase from the United States. Under Italian law, defendants having a role in a murder case can also be charged with homicide.

The defense plans to call its own psychiatric consultant as a witness later in the trial.

The confrontation between the young tourists and Cerciello and his partner followed an alleged attempt by the Americans to buy cocaine in Rome earlier in the night.

After allegedly paying for the drug, the two realized they didn’t receive cocaine. Angered over the alleged swindle, they snatched the backpack of the drug dealer’s go-between, according to the prosecution. When the backpack’s owner called his cellphone, which was inside the snatched bag, one of the tourists answered and demanded money and cocaine in return for the bag and phone, prosecutors alleged.

Cerciello and his partner showed up to retrieve the backpack instead of the alleged go-between.

The officer's partner, Andrea Varriale, testified last week that he and Cerciello identified themselves as police officers and showed their badges. The defendants have told investigators they saw no badges and thought they were being attacked by criminal thugs.

Psychiatrist Ferracuti testified that Elder “admitted he lost control” during the confrontation with Cerciello. He added that the young man told him that "ïf he knew they were police, he wouldn't have had" the reaction he did.

Ferracuti also told the court that Elder “has an anti-social borderline personality.”

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder with symptoms that include problems with self-control and intense emotional reactions.

After Wednesday's session, the trial was recessed for a summer break until Sept 9.