US tourists serving life in Italy for police stabbing start appeal

Two US tourists sentenced to life for stabbing an Italian police officer to death in 2019 begin their appeal on Thursday, with their lawyers expected to argue that the verdict was biased.

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth is escorted by police after the court decision in his trial on charges of murdering Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, in Rome on May 5, 2021.
Gabriel Natale-Hjorth is escorted by police after the court decision in his trial on charges of murdering Italian police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, in Rome on May 5, 2021. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Finnegan Elder, 22, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were convicted in May 2021 by a Rome court for the death of police officer Mario Cerciello Rega during a late-night encounter in July 2019 while the two were on summer holiday.

The stabbing of Cerciello with an 11-inch camping knife on a dark Rome street horrified Italy and led to an outpouring of public grief for the newly-wed officer, hailed as a national hero.

But the case revealed multiple examples of police misconduct.

READ ALSO: American students convicted of murdering Italian police officer

And it hinged on whether the two then-teenagers knew the officers were police, with both sides offering very different versions about the moments leading up to the killing.

The evening had begun with a botched drug deal. The Americans later went to meet someone they expected to be the go-between on the failed deal – but police showed up instead.

Cerciello’s partner, Andrea Varriale, testified that the attack was unprovoked, coming immediately after the two plainclothes officers presented themselves as police.

But both Americans said they were jumped from behind by men they thought were drug dealers. They denied the officers had shown them their police badges.

Natale-Hjorth did not handle the murder weapon during the attack, scuffling instead with Varriale.

READ ALSO: Stabbed 11 times with a US Marine knife: Prosecutors reveal how Italian police officer was murdered

But he helped Elder hide the knife, and under Italian law faced the same homicide charge as his friend.

Life in prison is Italy’s stiffest penalty, and harsher than many given to mafia criminals or others who commit premeditated killings.

Lawyers for Elder criticised the sentence last year as “shameful for Italy”.

In the appeal, lawyers plan to argue that the court ignored substantial evidence that Varriale – the prosecution’s star witness – lied on the stand, and will also highlight what they say was a pattern of ignored protocol by police the night of the attack.

Among other inconsistencies, Varriale admitted having previously lied when he said after the attack that he had been armed, when he was actually without his gun.

Three other prosecution witnesses are being prosecuted for perjury.

The defence will also cite a court document explaining its reasoning for the conviction and sentences as evidence of bias towards law enforcement.

In that document published in July, the court criticised defence lawyers, saying they “mocked the conduct of the victims” during the trial, as they defended their clients “to the limits of permission and decency”.

Elder’s lawyers, Renato Borzone and Roberto Capra, said Tuesday that a “correct reading of the evidence” by the appeals court would result in a different outcome.

“The truth of what really happened that night is already in the documents collected during the first instance trial, you just need to want to see it,” they wrote in a statement.

In a related proceeding, a trial began Tuesday against an officer who blindfolded Natale-Hjorth inside the police station following his arrest. A photograph of the handcuffed, blindfolded teenager went viral, sparking widespread criticism.

On Wednesday, the La Corriere della Sera daily published messages from a group chat – introduced as evidence in that trial – that called for rough justice for Cerciello’s killers, with one officer suggesting “we should dissolve them in acid”.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.