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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Tourist fined €450 for swim in Rome’s Trevi Fountain

With the return of tourism and scorching temperatures, Rome’s fountains are once again attracting visitors hoping to cool off with a midnight swim.

Tourist fined €450 for swim in Rome's Trevi Fountain

In the latest incident, a 26-year-old Spanish man was fined 450 euros after taking a dip in the Trevi Fountain in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Rome’s city police apprehended and fined the man after he was spotted swimming in the 18th-century monument at around 5am, according to local media reports.

READ ALSO: How to keep cool like an Ancient Roman in Italy’s summer heat

Every summer, hapless foreign visitors face fines of hundreds of euros after falling foul of Rome’s strict ban on taking a dip in public fountains – with the city mayor warning tourists that the centuries-old Baroque monuments are “not swimming pools”.

In April, two Dutch tourists also faced fines totalling over €1,000 after their own ill-advised splash in the Trevi Fountain.

The Roman landmark is one of the city’s main magnets for badly-behaved visitors, but tourists have also been fined after cooling off in the Santa Maria fountain in Trastevere, believed to be the city’s oldest. 

Since 2018, anyone caught misbehaving at Rome’s monuments can also face a temporary ‘Daspo’ ban from the area – similar to an ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) in the UK – which allows city police to restrict the movement of people they deem a threat to public order.

READ ALSO: From selfie brawls to midnight swims: Tourists behaving badly at the Trevi Fountain

But a plan to erect a one-metre-high glass and steel barrier around the Trevi fountain to protect it from unruly visitors now appears to have been abandoned after arts and heritage experts called the idea “foolish”.

Fines for swimming in the fountains have been in place since 2015, but this hasn’t stopped determined visitors from recreating scenes from La Dolce Vita and even some locals from taking a dip – – with or without their clothes.

Swimming in the wrong place is just one of the offences regularly committed by visitors, with graffiti and vandalism a common problem at many of Italy’s famous monuments.

READ ALSO: 15 strange ways to get into trouble on holiday in Italy

In Rome alone, this year tourists have made headlines for everything from breaking into the Colosseum to enjoy a drink with a view to driving a car down the Spanish Steps.

Other Italian tourism hotspots, including Florence and Venice, also have varying local rules in place aimed at curbing rowdy behaviour.