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Americans sentenced to life for killing police officer in Rome plan to appeal

Americans convicted in death of Italian officer
Two American students convicted of killing an Italian police officer 01:33

One of two young Americans convicted Wednesday of killing a Rome police officer "is in a bad place" after being sentenced to life imprisonment, Italy's stiffest sentence, a lawyer and spokesman for his family told CBS News.

21-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, from San Francisco, is "confused how he seemingly was punished for telling the truth. Confused how they could believe a liar and concoct a story," his spokesman Craig Peters, who is in Rome with Elder's parents, told CBS News.

Peters said he hoped Elder could "hang on and hang in so we can get this injustice corrected."     

Elder and his co-defendant Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, got into an altercation with two police officers in July 2019 while the two friends — then teenagers — were on vacation in Rome. During the incident, Elder stabbed officer Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a 7-inch military-style knife he had brought from the United States, while Natale-Hjorth fought with another officer, Andrea Varriale.

As the verdict was delivered, Elder bowed his head and leaned against a desk in obvious distress. Natale-Hjorth stood did not display any emotion; his lawyer Fabio Alonzi would later say his client was "completely shocked, he kept telling me he did not understand."

U.S. citizens Finnegan Lee Elder, right, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, during their trial in Rome on April 26, 2021. They were convicted in the 2019 stabbing death of Italian Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega. REMO CASILLI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Elder's lawyer, Renato Borzone, immediately announced they would appeal the verdict. "What happened is unheard of," he said. "I have never seen something like this in 40 years of career. To give life sentences to two 19-year-old boys is shameful. Italy's justice is strong with the weak and weak with the strong."

The two San Francisco-area men were also convicted of attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. 

Although Natale-Hjorth did not handle the knife, after the incident he helped Elder hide the weapon in their hotel room. Under Italian law, an accomplice to a murder can also be charged with murder.

Earlier on the night of the homicide, Elder and Natale-Hjorth left their 4-star hotel in search of cocaine. They went to the popular Trastevere neighborhood, where they met an intermediary who brought them to a drug dealer. After paying for the drugs, the teens discovered that instead of cocaine, they had been sold aspirin. In an attempt to get their money back, they snatched the intermediary's backpack, then called him and demanded drugs and money to return it.

A meeting was set up at 3 a.m. near the teens' hotel, but the intermediary was also a police informant; he called the police and reported that his backpack had been stolen and that the two youths were trying to extort him. Officers Cerciello and Varriale were dispatched to the meeting point.   

Throughout the 14-month trial, defense attorneys argued that Elder and Natale-Hjorth believed they were acting in self defense because the officers were in plainclothes, did not identify themselves as police and did not show a badge. The pair alleged that the two policemen, whom they believed to be thugs, attacked them first from behind.

But in his testimony last year, Varriale disputed that, saying, "We approached them from the front... We presented ourselves as belonging to the carabinieri (police)… We approached and unfortunately they immediately assaulted us."

The defense in turn tried to discredit Varriale's testimony, contending that he had lied about being armed during the time of the attack, and that he was therefore an unreliable witness. 

The families of the two young men were present in the courtroom during the verdict.  Elder's mother Leah was visibly shaken when the verdict was delivered, and leaned against her husband Nathan for support. Peters told CBS News that the couple were "doing the best they can." He said the Elders were fighters and would continue to fight for justice for their son. 

Rosa Maria Esilio, the widow of the slain officer, began sobbing as the verdict was delivered, and clung to Cerciello's brother.

"His integrity was defended," she told reporters outside the courtroom. "He was a marvelous husband, he was a marvelous man, a servant of the state who deserves respect and honor."

Elder did not testify during the trial, but said in a statement to the court that he would never forgive himself for taking Cerciello's life, and described feeling "shock and terror" on the night of the attack. During the trial, defense witnesses said Elder had a history of psychiatric problems, including paranoia.

In a statement released to the press, Peters said the verdict lacked both reason and compassion, and subjected "these boys to a sentence that is reserved for unredeemable, career criminals that commit premeditated killings." 

"The message sent by these judges is loud and clear," Peters wrote. "Those in a position of power, the Carabinieri and the prosecutors, can lie and mislead and they will not be held responsible. This is a sad day for justice. I look forward to having the appellate court, with experienced, rational judges, objectively review the facts to determine a just outcome in this case for these two young boys."

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