Court in Italy cuts jail time for US tourists over death of policeman

An Italian appeals court on Thursday reduced the sentences given to two young US men convicted of killing a police officer in Rome in a case that shocked the country.

Court in Italy cuts jail time for US tourists over death of policeman
US citizens Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (L) and Finnegan Lee Elder, who are being tried on murder charges after Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega was killed in July 2019, stand in cells during their trial in Rome (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth were sentenced to life imprisonment in May 2021, for killing policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in a drugs bust gone wrong two years earlier. They were aged 19 and 18 at the time.

Following an appeal, their sentences were reduced Thursday to 24 years behind bars for Elder, who wielded the weapon, and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth.

Their life sentences would have meant at least 26 years in jail.

“Scrapping the life sentences was the right thing to do, but it’s not enough,” Elder’s lawyer Roberto Capra told AFP.

“We proved the defence’s version of the facts to be flawed, and we’ll appeal again.”

Elder admits to stabbing Cerciello with an 11-inch knife on a dark street in the Italian capital, but says he acted in self-defence after believing he was being attacked by dangerous drug dealers.

The prosecution says the officers were in plain clothes but identified themselves as police.

‘Extreme cruelty’

Deputy Prosecutor Vincenzo Saveriano called in February for the appeals court to uphold the life sentence for Elder, describing the crime as an act “of extreme cruelty”.

But he asked to lower the sentence of Natale-Hjorth, who hid the weapon after the attack but played no part in stabbing Cerciello.

At the moment the fatal stabbing took place, Natale-Hjorth had been tussling on the ground with Cerciello’s partner Andrea Varriale — the prosecution’s star witness.

Elder’s father was in court for the verdict, along with Natale-Hjorth’s uncle.

The murder of Cerciello, who was newly married, scandalised Italy while also raising doubts about police conduct.

Lawyers for the Americans had sharply criticised the life sentences — Italy’s stiffest penalty — saying they were harsher than many given for premeditated killings by mafia members.

‘Expecting a drug dealer’

The evening of the attack began with a botched attempt by the Americans to buy drugs.

They later went to meet someone they expected to be a go-between on the failed deal — but police showed up instead.

Varriale testified that the two teens set upon him and Cerciello immediately after the officers showed their badges, an account the defendants deny.

“We were expecting a drug dealer,” Elder was quoted as saying in a  statement by his lawyers this month.

There was no way I could have known he was a police officer: in street clothes, unarmed and without a badge.”

The defence says the first instance court ignored substantial evidence that the then-teenagers’ version of events was correct, and insists police protocol was repeatedly broken.

The court, Capra said last week, had refused to question the “credibility and behaviour of a law enforcement officer” — despite inconsistencies in Varriale’s story.

Elder stabbed Cerciello in an instinctive response to the “blocking technique” used by Cerciello, who “pinned him to the ground, exerting pressure on his neck and blocking his airway,” Capra said.

The prosecution said Cerciello had been wounded 11 times in a frenzied 20 seconds.

Deputy Prosecutor Saveriano acknowledged Varriale had admitted lying following the attack, but said it was “a big leap” to then consider him an unreliable witness.

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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.