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Two Americans sentenced to life in Italy for murdering police officer

US citizens Finnegan Lee Elder (L) and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (R) react after the court decision on May 5, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

A court in Italy has found two young Americans guilty of murdering a police officer in the capital, Rome, in 2019, ending a long and high-profile trial by handing down life sentences to both convicts.

The court issued the ruling late on Wednesday, convicting Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth of fatally stabbing Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega while they were on a summer holiday in Rome in July 2019.

Elder had admitted at the time to stabbing the Italian police officer during a late-night encounter in the Prati neighborhood of Rome, near the hotel where they were staying, while out with his friend, Natale-Hjorth.

Italian prosecutors described the incident as a brutal and an unprovoked attack in which Elder, then 19, stabbed Rega 11 times with a seven-inch camping knife.

The Americans claimed they acted in self defense, saying they thought Rega and his colleague, who confronted them in plain clothes late at night, were violent criminals.

Judge Marina Finiti declared the Americans "guilty of the offenses ascribed to them jointly" and sentenced them both to "life imprisonment with solitary confinement for a period of two months, in addition to payment of the costs of the trial."

Natale-Hjorth was accused of hiding the knife and was given the same sentence as Elder since, under Italian law, accomplices can be charged with murder even if they were not directly involved.

"We can only give thanks for the complicated work of the judges, thank our talented lawyers, and all the people who really stood by Mario because they knew him, because he was everyone's son, because he was everyone's carabiniere (police)," Rosa Maria Esilio, Rega's widow, said after the verdict was announced.

Widow of Italian Carabinieri police officer Mario Cerciello Rega, Rosa Maria Esilio (C), reacts after a court decision in the case of his murder, on May 5, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The case took a long time to settle as it faced legal controversies and hinged on whether the two Americans, who have been in jail since their arrest almost two years ago, knew the officers were police.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth claimed that neither officer showed their badges nor identified themselves as police before the altercation, an account refuted by the state's principal witness, Rega's colleague, Andrea Varriale.

"We approached them from the front... we presented ourselves as belonging to the carabinieri (police)," Varriale told the jury during his testimony. "We approached and unfortunately they immediately assaulted us."

The death of Rega, who had just returned from his honeymoon when he was murdered, sparked an outpouring of public sympathy in Italy and he was hailed as a hero.

The stabbing and subsequent trial received intense media coverage in the country, and Rega's funeral was broadcast live on television, with politicians reacting dramatically to his killing.

Matteo Salvini — a controversial far-right lawmaker famous for opposing refugees — tweeted in 2019 that the perpetrators should "pay dearly," and he reportedly called for them to be sentenced to hard labor.

Elder's lawyer has told Italian broadcaster RAI that his client will appeal.

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