Court in Italy to Rule on Convictions of 2 Americans in Police Officer’s Killing

Italy’s highest court is expected to rule on Wednesday on appeals by two Americans convicted in the killing of an Italian police officer in Rome in July 2019 after a chaotic evening and a small-time drug deal gone wrong, a case that eventually drew international attention.

The Americans, Finnegan Elder, 23, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 22, both of California, were teenagers at the time of the killing of the officer, Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega of the carabinieri, or Italian military police.

The defendants were sentenced to life in prison in 2021, Italy’s harshest punishment, but their sentences were reduced on appeal in 2022. Mr. Elder, who stabbed the officer to death during a brief altercation, was sentenced to 24 years in prison, while Mr. Natale Hjorth, who is believed to have orchestrated the events that led to the death, is serving a 22-year term.

The Court of Cassation, which will hear the case on Wednesday, rules on questions of procedure and the correct application of laws, not on the merits of a case or the finding of guilt or innocence. It will either uphold the convictions or, if it finds that the rules of law have not been correctly applied, send the case for retrial. The court could also annul the sentences, but that would not automatically mean that the defendants could go free.

The killing and the case drew intense media scrutiny in Italy and in the United States, in part because of the young ages of those involved, including the officer, who was newly married.

The two Americans, who knew each other from high school in Marin County, Calif., were on summer vacation when they decided to meet up in Rome.

Shortly before midnight on July 25, 2019, after an attempt to buy cocaine went sour, Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth stole a backpack — containing a cellphone and house keys — from a man who had brokered the deal.

The man reported the theft and two plainclothes carabinieri officers — Deputy Brig. Cerciello Rega and his partner, Officer Andrea Varriale — were dispatched to help him retrieve the bag from the Americans, who had used the man’s cellphone to make contact and negotiate for its return. A rendezvous point was chosen not far from the hotel where Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth were staying.

What transpired when the carabinieri and the Americans crossed paths — an encounter that lasted less than 30 seconds — has been the crux of the case.

Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth testified that they had acted in self-defense after being attacked by the officers, who they believed were criminal associates of the drug dealer. The officers did not identify themselves as being members of the carabinieri, the defendants said.

On the stand, Officer Varriale testified that he and his partner had shown their badges as they approached, clearly identifying themselves. The defendants, the prosecution argued, had attacked the officers to avoid arrest.

The legal reasoning that led to the conviction can also be challenged in front of the appeals court, and both legal teams have submitted lengthy briefs that will be examined Wednesday.

Roberto Capra, one of Mr. Elder’s defense lawyers, said that the court would be asked to review the inconsistencies between the lower court ruling and that of a lower appeal court regarding Officer Varriale’s testimony and his credibility as a witness.

“The lower court believed Varriale when he said that the officers had shown their badges, while the appeals court said there was no proof of this, undermining that argument,” Mr. Capra said.

And even though the appeals court expressed belief in Officer Varriale’s version that he and his partner had verbally told the Americans that they were carabinieri, Mr. Capra added, the dynamic of the altercation necessitated a review. Whether the officers showed badges or not “changes everything,” he said.

Mr. Capra said that his legal team would also challenge the length of his client’s sentence, which, because the victim was a law enforcement officer, had been especially severe.

Lawyers for Mr. Natale Hjorth said that they would also challenge the courts’ reasoning in determining that their client was equally guilty of the crime. There was no evidence, they say, that Mr. Natale Hjorth knew that Mr. Elder was armed and testimony at the murder trial, including from Officer Varriale, suggested that Mr. Natale Hjorth had sought to run away from the confrontation, not engage in it.

“How can they say that Natale wanted to cause harm?” said Fabio Alonzi, a lawyer for Mr. Natale Hjorth. “The court’s reasoning is illogical and contradictory.”

“The sentence is full of these contradictions,” he added.

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