Bay Area teens who killed Italian police officer appeal conviction

Lawyers and relatives of two young San Francisco Bay Area men convicted of murdering a police officer in Rome said they are hoping for a better outcome from the defendants' appeals trial, which began Thursday in the Italian capital.

Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, who had just returned from his honeymoon, was hailed as a national hero after he was stabbed 11 times in the street while on a plainclothes mission in July 2019, near the hotel where the two U.S. tourists were staying.

Finnegan Lee Elder, now 22, of San Francisco, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, of Marin County 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 young men, who had been friends back home in California, were given Italy’s harshest punishment — life imprisonment — and therefore essentially have nothing to lose in seeking the appeals trial.

"We trust in the Italian justice system,'' Elder's mother, Leah Elder, told The Associated Press before heading to the courthouse. "We hope that the anomalies and the inconsistencies that were revealed in the first trial will be brought to light. We really hope that the truth of that night will be shown."

MORE: Bay Area men await their fate as murder trial nears end in Rome

In the original trial, the defendants testified that neither Cerciello Rega nor his partner identified themselves as police officers and they thought the Italians dressed in casual summer clothes were thugs.

Elder testified that Cerciello Rega tried to strangle him and that he pulled out a knife he carried for his own protection 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 pursuing a reported extortion attempt allegedly concocted by the Americans after a botched bid to buy cocaine a few hours earlier in another part of Rome, the Trastevere nightlife district.

Appeals Court Judge Andrea Calabria rejected requests by media, including The Associated Press, to cover the appeals trial. He cited the small size of the courtroom and the lack of windows to allow outdoor ventilation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renato Borzone, one of Elder's lawyers, told the AP as he headed into court Thursday that the defense team aims "to get justice. We believe that there were mistakes, evidence improperly evaluated" in the first trial.

At Thursday's session, prosecutors argued for the convictions of both defendants to be upheld. But they called for Natale-Hjorth's sentence to be reduced to 24 years, while saying the life sentence should stick for Elder.