ROME — Two American men were found guilty of murder on Wednesday and sentenced to life for the killing of an Italian military police officer in July 2019, when the two young San Francisco natives were vacationing in Rome.
Ending a 14-month trial held mostly behind closed doors because of pandemic restrictions, a jury found Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 20, guilty of the murder of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega, 35.
Gasps were heard across the courtroom as the verdicts were announced, and the slain officer’s widow leaned against her lawyer and sobbed.
The two Americans were in their teens on July 26, 2019, when an early-morning scuffle on a deserted street corner with two plainclothes police officers — Brigadier Cerciello Rega and another officer, Andrea Varriale — turned deadly.
The defense argued that the two Americans had acted in self-defense during the altercation, which lasted for less than a minute, believing that the officers were ill-intentioned thugs. The prosecution maintained that the pair had acted with homicidal intent.
The fight capped a convoluted evening that began with an aborted drug deal in a trendy nightlife neighborhood. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy cocaine, the two Americans stole a backpack belonging to Sergio Brugiatelli, a middleman who had brokered that drug deal, and then demanded money for the bag’s return.
Brigadier Cerciello Rega and his partner had been dispatched to retrieve the backpack, and the officer was killed at the rendezvous for the handover.
Mr. Elder repeatedly stabbed Brigadier Cerciello Rega with a seven-inch military-style knife after they began fighting, and Mr. Natale Hjorth briefly wrestled with Officer Varriale. Mr. Elder never denied killing Brigadier Cerciello Rega, but said he had acted in self-defense, believing that the officer was trying to choke him.
The teenagers were arrested at their hotel, just down the block from where Brigadier Cerciello Rega was killed, a few hours after the murder.
Officer Varriale, 27, who was bruised while wrestling with Mr. Natale Hjorth, has repeatedly stood by his account that he and his partner had identified themselves as carabinieri, or members of Italy’s military police, when they approached the teenagers. When he took the stand last July, he said that they had pulled out their badges and clearly announced themselves.
The case attracted international attention in part because of the young ages of the victim and the men on trial. Brigadier Cerciello Rega, who had just returned to work after his honeymoon, was given a hero’s funeral, broadcast live on national television.
Brigadier Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, was in the large courtroom — usually used for major terrorism trials — when the verdict was read. After learning that the prosecution had prevailed, she hugged her husband’s brother.
Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth have spent the last 21 months in prisons in Rome while awaiting the trial and verdict.