Italy orders retrial for Americans convicted of killing police officer

Italy’s highest court on Wednesday ordered a retrial for two Americans convicted of killing an Italian police officer during a drugs bust while they were travelling in Rome.

Italy orders retrial for Americans convicted of killing police officer
Finnegan Lee Elder, convicted along with another US citizen on murder charges, speaks with his parents as he stands in a cell during the initial trial in Rome. The conviction has been thrown out and a retrial ordered. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

In a verdict late on Wednesday, the Court of Cassation in Rome overturned the sentences handed to Finnegan Elder, 23, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 22, and granted both a new appeal.

The pair had been sentenced to life in prison in May 2021 for stabbing to death policeman Mario Cerciello Rega while they were teenagers in a drugs’ bust gone wrong two years earlier in Rome.

READ ALSO: American students convicted of murdering Italian police officer

An appeals court in March 2022 reduced their sentences to 24 years for Elder, who wielded the knife, and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth, who helped hide the weapon after the attack. Prosecutors said his actions earlier in the
evening led to the murder.

The court will issue its reasons for the verdict in the coming weeks, and instruct an appeals court on the issues to examine in a new trial.

After the first trial last year, the two friends had begun serving the earlier life sentences, Italy’s harshest punishment, in separate Rome prisons.

The courtroom in Rome during the initial trial of two young US nationals for the murder of an Italian police officer on July 20th, 2020. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / POOL / AFP)

“We are satisfied with the annulment of the sentence,” said Roberto Capra, the lawyer for Elder, whose new appeal is expected to consider aggravating circumstances.

“There will be a new trial on the heart of the matter – whether the carabinieri (police) identified themselves as members of law enforcement,” he added, saying this raised the potential of a new, lower sentence being imposed.

READ ALSO: ‘Worst night of my life’: US student charged with murder of Italian policeman apologises in court

The encounter between the two teenagers and the police officer and his partner on a dark Rome street lasted just 30 seconds.

Elder has admitted to stabbing Cerciello with an 11-inch (28-centimetre) knife, but he and Natale-Hjorth testified they were jumped from behind by Cerciello and his partner Andrea Varriale, both in plain clothes.

They claim they did not know the men were police, believing them to be drug dealers following the Americans’ botched attempt to buy drugs earlier in the evening.

But Varriale, the prosecution’s main witness, testified that he and Cerciello approached the teens from the front and identified themselves as police.

Lawyers for the Americans had sharply criticised the life sentences, Italy’s stiffest penalty.

They argue the lower courts have ignored inconsistencies in the testimony of Varriale – who has admitted to lying after the attack – that give credence to the defendants’ version of events.

The trial was reportedly marred by mistranslations and accusations of “inconsistencies” as well as claims that Rome prosecutors had “hidden evidence”

The murder of Cerciello, who was newly married, scandalised Italy while also raising doubts about police conduct after Natale-Hjorth was blindfolded while in custody.

The officer who blindfolded him was handed a two-month suspended sentence last month.

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Amanda Knox reconvicted in Italy in slander case linked to 2007 murder

Amanda Knox was again found guilty of slander on Wednesday, in a retrial in Italy related to her infamous jailing and later acquittal for the 2007 murder of her British roommate.

Amanda Knox reconvicted in Italy in slander case linked to 2007 murder

The American cried in court in Florence as she was sentenced to three years already served for having accused, during police questioning, an innocent bar owner of killing 21-year-old Meredith Kercher.

“I’m very sorry I was not strong enough to have resisted the police pressure,” Knox told the judges.

“I was scared, tricked and mistreated. I gave the testimony in a moment of existential crisis.”

She was 20 when she and her Italian then-boyfriend were arrested for the brutal killing of fellow student Kercher at the girls’ shared home in Perugia.

READ ALSO: ‘I hope to clear my name’: Amanda Knox back in Italy for slander retrial

The murder began a long legal saga where the pair was found guilty, acquitted, found guilty again and finally cleared of all charges in 2015.

But Knox still had a related conviction for slander, for blaming the murder on a local bar owner during initial questioning by police.

In October, Italy’s highest court threw out that conviction on appeal and ordered a retrial, which began earlier this year in Florence in Knox’s absence.

The night she was interrogated was “the worst night of my life… I was in shock, exhausted”, she said on Wednesday.

“The police interrogated me for hours and hours, in a language which I hardly knew, without an official translator or a lawyer”.

“I didn’t know who the killer was… They refused to believe me”, she said.

‘Something so horrible’

Kercher’s half-naked body was found in a pool of blood inside the roommates’ cottage in November 2007. Her throat had been slit and she had suffered multiple stab wounds.

During police questioning, Knox implicated Congolese bar owner Patrick Lumumba, who then spent almost two weeks behind bars before being released without charge.

Knox was convicted of slandering him in 2011 and sentenced to three years already served.

But she said she was yelled at and slapped during the police investigation – claims that prompted a separate charge of slandering police, of which she was cleared in 2016.

Amanda Knox arriving in court in Florence, on June 5th, 2024. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

The police had found a message on Knox’s phone they said was proof she and Lumumba were plotting.

“They told me I had witnessed something so horrible that my mind had blocked it out,” Knox said on Wednesday. “One of the officers cuffed me round the head and said ‘remember, remember!’,” she said.

“In the end… I was forced to submit. I was too exhausted and confused to resist.”

The European Court of Human Rights in 2019 ruled that Knox had not been provided with adequate legal representation or a professional interpreter during her interrogation.

That ruling, which found her treatment “compromised the fairness of the proceedings as a whole”, was cited by Italy’s top court last year when it ordered the retrial.

‘Monster of Perugia’

Knox said last October that at the time of Kercher’s murder, Lumumba “was my friend”.

But Lumumba’s lawyer, Carlo Pacelli, described how Knox’s accusation changed his life.

“When he was accused by Amanda he became universally considered the monster of Perugia,” he told reporters outside court.

Knox was hugged by her husband in court – the same one where she was reconvicted of murder in 2014 – as reporters looked on.

Her murder trial attracted global interest, much of it salacious, focusing on prosecutors’ claims that Kercher died as part of a sex game gone wrong.

But Italy’s highest court, when it acquitted Knox and former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito once and for all, said there had been “major flaws” in the police investigation.

One person remains convicted of Kercher’s murder — Ivorian Rudy Guede, who was linked to the scene by DNA evidence.

He was sentenced in 2008 to 30 years for murder and sexual assault, his sentence later reduced on appeal to 16 years.

Guede was released early in November 2021.

Now 36 and with two young children, Knox is a journalist, author and campaigner for criminal justice reform.

She first returned to Italy five years ago to address a conference on wrongful convictions, appearing on a panel entitled “Trial By Media”.