Italy court trims sentences for US tourists over police officer’s murder, again

By Marco Carta

ROME (Reuters) -An Italian appeals court on Wednesday again reduced the prison terms imposed on two American tourists, who were originally given life sentences for the 2019 murder of a police officer in a case that shook Italy.

The court ruled that Finnegan Lee Elder, 19 at the time of the incident, should now serve 15 years and two months in jail for stabbing officer Mario Cerciello Rega to death in central Rome following a botched drug deal.

His friend, Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was given an 11-year, 4-month term. He did not handle the knife during the attack but was tussling with another Carabinieri police officer.

Their case has been bouncing around various Italian courts. After receiving life terms in a first trial in 2021, Elder and Natale-Hjorth’s sentences were reduced on appeal to 24 and 22 years respectively in 2022.

However, in 2023, Italy’s highest court ordered a new appeals trial, saying some allegations had not been sufficiently corroborated.

Prosecutors had called for tougher sentencing than the court handed on Wednesday, and they can contest this latest verdict thanks to Italy’s multi-tiered appeals process, which can drag out cases for years.

The defence lawyers welcomed the new ruling.

“This sentence is fairer than the previous ones,” said Renato Borzone, Elder’s lawyer. “It took five years, but we finally have a court that can sleep easily because it has made the right decision in good conscience.”

SIM, a trade union for Carabinieri officers, expressed “outrage and regret” in a statement on Thursday, reiterating its solidarity with Cerciello Rega’s widow and asking “how much is the life of a Carabiniere worth?”

The two Americans, both from California, were in Italy on holiday in 2019 and tried to buy drugs from a local dealer in a tourist hotspot in Rome. They have said they were cheated, but grabbed a bag belonging to an intermediary of the dealer as he tried to escape.

They later agreed to meet the dealer again to get their money back in exchange for the bag, but instead, the two policemen showed up in plain clothes.

Elder has admitted killing Cerciello Rega, but both he and Natale-Hjorth said they acted in self defence because they thought the two policemen were thugs who were out to get them.

“My son, from the very first moment, declared that he had not realised that they were Carabinieri,” Ethan Elder, Finnegan Lee’s father, was quoted as saying by Italian news agency Adnkronos.

Police say Cerciello Rega, 35, was unarmed at the time and was stabbed 11 times by Elder with an 18-centimetre (7-inch) blade.

Italian media reported that the dealer was an informer who had reported the theft of his bag and asked police to intervene.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer and Romolo Tosiani; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Bernadette Baum)



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