ROME (AP) — Italy’s highest court has ordered a retrial for two American citizens convicted in the slaying of an Italian police officer during a sting operation gone wrong.
The Court of Cassation late Wednesday threw out the guilty verdicts against Finnegan Lee Elder, now 23, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 22, both convicted in the stabbing death of the 35-year-old caribiniere during a plainclothes operation in July 2019 while the Americans, teens at the time, were on vacation in Rome.
The court will issue its reasons for the verdict in the coming weeks, and instruct an appeals court on the precise issues to examine in a new trial.
Elder’s lawyer, Roberto Capra, expressed satisfaction at the decision, saying a new trial would open the possibility of recalculating the sentence.
“It confirms a topic we raised from the first day: That Elder was not aware of having in front of him a law enforcement agent. The dynamics of the events exclude this fact,” Capra told reporters. He expressed hope that a retrial would give room to lower the penalty.
The two men, friends from Northern California, were sentenced to life in prison, Italy’s toughest penalty, in the initial trial. An appeals court upheld the verdict, but lowered the sentence to 24 years for Elder and 22 for Natale-Hjorth.
Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, was stabbed 11 times while he and a partner were on a plainclothes operation to recover a backpack that the two Americans took during a failed drug deal. Elder claimed he pulled out a knife in self-defense to break free as he and the officer struggled on the ground, and the officer tried to strangle him.
Cerciello Rega’s partner testified that they had indeed declared themselves as officers, but the defense has cast doubt on his version.
Natale-Hjorth testified that he grappled with Cerciello Rega’s partner and was unaware of the stabbing when he ran back to a hotel.
His lawyer, Fabio Alonzi, said the high court’s decision indicates a weakness in the prosecution’s argument that Natale-Hjorth was an accomplice in the murder, and the retrial in his regard will focus on that element.
Alonzi visited Natale-Hjorth in prison on Thursday. “He told me it was the first time he felt relaxed, even though he understands that the road to freedom is long,” the lawyer said.
Elders’ parents said the prospect of a new trial, even focused on narrow issues, is giving their son the first sign that he can begin to envision a future beyond the daily prison routine.
He didn’t have a hope for the future for a long time after the first sentence,” Elder’s mother, Leah Elder, told The Associated Press. “The second sentence allowed him to have a little bit (of hope), now this third court decision I think truly will allow him to envision what his life may look like.”