Italian court deliberates appeal of 2 US men in cop killing

FILE - Finnegan Lee Elder, wipes his eye, as he and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth listen as the verdict is read, in the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer on a street near the hotel where they were staying while on vacation in Rome in summer 2019, in Rome, on May 5, 2021. Italys highest court on Wednesday March 15, 2023 was hearing the final appeal of two U.S. citizens convicted in the stabbing death of a police officer during plainclothes operation in the summer of 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File) (Gregorio Borgia, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ROME – Italy’s highest court started deliberations Wednesday in what should be the final appeal of two U.S. citizens convicted in the stabbing death of a police officer during a plainclothes operation in Rome in the summer of 2019.

Finnegan Lee Elder, now 23, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 22, were convicted in May 2021 of slaying the 35-year-old officer, as well as of attempted extortion, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause.

The two men, who were friends in northern California before they traveled to Italy together, initially received life sentences, Italy’s most severe penalty. An appeals court last year upheld their convictions, but reduced the sentences to 24 years for Elder and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth.

The Italian legal system allows defendants another appeal to Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation, which heard some seven hours of arguments before going into deliberations Wednesday evening. The court can either uphold the convictions or send the case back for a retrial if it finds errors in the rules of law.

Natale-Hjorth and Elder's lawyers argued that there were flaws in the prosecution’s reconstruction of events from the night Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerceillo Rega was stabbed 11 times near the hotel where the two American tourists were staying.

The defense also claims Cerceillo Rega’s partner lied when he said the two officers showed the young men their badges to identify themselves as law enforcement.

During the original trial, the defendants testified that neither officer identified himself as a police officer and they that thought the Italians dressed in casual summer clothes were thugs.

Elder testified that he pulled out a knife he carried for his own protection as Cerciello Rega tried to strangle him and repeatedly stabbed the officer to break free.

Natale-Hjorth testified that he grappled with Cerciello Rega’s partner and was unaware of the stabbing when he ran back to the hotel.

In Italy, an accomplice can be charged with murder without directly taking part in a slaying.

The plainclothes officers were responding to a reported extortion attempt allegedly concocted by the Americans after they made a botched attempt to buy cocaine a few hours earlier in Rome's Trastevere nightlife district.