2 California students were sentenced to life in prison for stabbing and killing a police officer in Rome

·3 min read
Finnegan Elder, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth
Finnegan Elder (left) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were convicted on Wednesday of murdering Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in 2019. Remo Casilli/Reuters
  • Two California students were sentenced in Italy to life in prison for killing a police officer.

  • They were convicted of murdering an unarmed officer during a botched attempt to buy cocaine in 2019.

  • Finnegan Elder, now 21, is attempting to appeal his sentence.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Two US citizens have been given life sentences by an Italian jury for murdering a Roman police officer in 2019 following a botched drug deal.

Finnegan Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were convicted on Wednesday of murder along with assault, attempted extortion, carrying a weapon without just cause, and resisting arrest, after a high-profile trial.

The two were found guilty of killing Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, when they were vacationing in Trastevere, Rome, in July 2019.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth, who were classmates from California's Bay Area, were 19 and 18, respectively, at the time of the crime.

The LA Times reported that the jury delivered the verdict after deliberating for more than 12 hours. Elder and Natale-Hjorth were given the harshest penalty possible in Italy - life imprisonment.

The Guardian reported that Cerciello Rega was stabbed 11 times, and that Elder had traveled to Italy with a 7-inch military-style knife. The report also said that Elder admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega. Under Italian law, prosecutors were able to charge Natale-Hjorth with murder as well - even though he acted in an accomplice capacity and did not stab Cerciello Rega himself.

CNN reported that the two were trying to buy drugs in Rome's Prati neighborhood, a tourist district one mile from Vatican City, when they were traveling in the area in July 2019. But they were swindled by an unnamed seller, who sold them powdered aspirin for 80 euros ($96) instead of a gram of cocaine.

In retaliation, the students swiped a backpack from the middleman who had introduced them to the drug dealer, demanding that the go-between give them cash and the cocaine they wanted before they returned the bag.

NBC reported that the middleman informed the police. Two unarmed plainclothes officers - Cerciello Rega, and his partner, Andrea Varriale - showed up at the meeting point where Elder and Natale-Hjorth had arranged to meet the middleman.

But the arrest attempt went awry. The BBC reported that when confronted, Elder pulled out a knife - a weapon that he had brought with him to Italy from the US - and stabbed Cerciello Rega repeatedly.

An AP report from April said Elder and Natale-Hjorth said in court that they were afraid and acted only in self-defense, as they believed at the time that the two officers were criminals.

Elder's attorney Renato Borzone said during his closing arguments that his client had psychiatric problems, and a "constant fear of being attacked," and that something "short-circuited" when he was confronted by the police, the AP reported.

RAI, a local Italian news outlet, reported that Elder intends to appeal his conviction and sentence. It is not known if Natale-Hjorth's attorneys plan to appeal his sentence.

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