Italy prosecutors seek life for US pair accused of killing cop

US defendants Finnegan Lee Elder (left) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth arrive for the hearing in Rome, March 6, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ROME (AFP) - Italian prosecutors on Saturday (March 6) requested life sentences for a pair of young US citizens accused of murdering an Italian police officer two years ago while holidaying in Rome.

Officer Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, died from knife wounds in July 2019 after he and a colleague, both in plain clothes, had a nighttime confrontation with Finnegal Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth.

Elder has admitted stabbing Cerciello Rega multiple times with an eight-inch combat knife, but has said he and Natale-Hjorth were jumped by men they thought were drug dealers.

"It was an aggression, a violent, deadly, disproportionate attack," prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta told a court in Rome, as quoted by the AGI news agency.

Describing him as "a good man", she said Cerciello Rega "could have done little to defend himself even if he had been armed, which he was not," and said the defendants had the "sole intention to kill."

Fellow prosecutor Nunzia D'Elia said the policeman was stabbed 11 times in less than 30 seconds, and there is no evidence that he attacked Elder before he was hit.

In 2019, the killing triggered an outcry of public sympathy for the newlywed Cerciello Rega, as well as outrage over leaked photos of Natale-Hjorth held blindfolded inside a police station after his arrest.

A confusing web of events led to the late-night incident, beginning with the young Americans approaching a stranger who introduced them to a drug dealer.

After the dealer robbed them of their money, Elder grabbed the knapsack of the intermediary, with Natale-Hjorth later arranging a rendezvous with him to swap the bag for the stolen money.

Remote video URL

The dealer was actually an informant, who reported the bag's theft to police, after which Cerciello Rega and his partner Andrea Varriale showed up at the designated exchange point.

Cerciello Rega "was killed for €70 and (a bit of) cocaine," prosecutor Calabretta said, blaming the Americans for running away from the murder scene, showing no consideration for their victim. €70 equates to just over S$100.

Even if Cerciello Rega was stabbed by Elder, Natale-Hjorth is being tried alongside him as under Italian law anyone who participates indirectly in a murder can face homicide charges.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.