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ROME (AP) – The pandemic was only hanging over Italy when the trial of two young American men accused of murdering an Italian policeman near their hotel while on vacation in 2019 began.
On Wednesday, after more than 14 months, defense attorneys will conclude their arguments, and the two defendants, former classmates from California, can expect to learn their plight later in the week.
Finnegan Lee Elder, now 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 20, insisted they were acting in self-defense. They say they thought they were being attacked by a pair of thugs or mobsters when Vice Rifleman Mario Cerciello Rega and his colleague Andrea Varriale approached them in the wee hours of July 26, 2019.
The officers, in civilian clothes, had been dispatched to follow up on a report of a small-scale extortion attempt allegedly engineered by the Americans in retaliation for a botched drug deal hours earlier when the young men were in Trastevere , a district of nightlife in Rome.
Much of the case rests on the testimony of Varriale, who insisted that the police identified themselves as police officers, against that of the young men, who, according to their own accounts, had spent the evening drinking beers and gunshots and unsuccessful attempts to buy cocaine. . Neither officer brought their duty pistols to the meeting.
Prosecutors alleged that Elder repeatedly hammered a 7-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely and died shortly after in hospital.
An elder told the court that the heavy Cerciello Rega was fighting on him and that he feared the officer would try to strangle him, so he took out the knife and stabbed him. When the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed him again.
Under Italian law, alleged accomplices can also be charged with homicide even though prosecutors admit that they played no significant role in the murder. In her closing arguments, the prosecutor asked the court to convict the two defendants and sentence them to life imprisonment, Italy’s most severe criminal sentence.
Judge Marina Finiti said the verdicts would likely be delivered on Wednesday or Thursday.
Shortly after the trial began on February 26, 2020, Italy, the first nation in the West to be hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, entered a severe lockdown. Several hearings took place without the public or even the journalists. At times, Elder and Natale-Hjorth followed the proceedings via a video link from the prison.
The defendants told the court that after a few visits they decided to visit Trastevere, a district of Rome popular among young people.
At one point in the evening, the defendants testified, they sought to buy cocaine. After being put in contact through an intermediary with a dealer, they paid 80 euros ($ 96) but instead of cocaine they were given an aspirin-like tablet. Before Natale-Hjorth, who speaks Italian, could confront the dealer, a separate carabinieri patrol intervened and those present dispersed.
Cerciello Rega, dressed in a T-shirt and long shorts, and Varriale, also dressed casually on the hot night in a polo shirt and jeans, were tasked with responding in plain clothes to what the prosecutors claimed to be an extortion plan devised by Natale-Hjorth.
When the cocaine deal was botched, the Americans ripped off the middleman’s backpack in retaliation. Inside was the man’s cell phone, and Natale-Hjorth testified that he spoke with the man over the phone, making an appointment to exchange the bag and phone in exchange for the money that they had lost in the drug trade.
The defendants insisted that they expected the intermediary to show up in front of their hotel. Instead, two men – the officers in plain clothes – appeared without the middleman, they said. It was the intermediary who phoned the police to report that his bag had been stolen.
The two defendants are also charged with attempted extortion.
While Cerciello Rega wrestled with Elder, Natale-Hjorth struggled with Varriale, who had a back injury. After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and asked him to hide it. Natale-Hjorth testified that she hid the knife behind a ceiling panel in their bedroom, where it was discovered hours later by police.
The Americans are also charged with assault for causing Varriale’s injury, carrying an attack-type knife outside their home without just cause and resisting an official.
During the pre-trial investigation, Elder told his lawyers to watch video footage of a bank near the stabbing, but no CCTV cameras were found to be working that night.
Italian newspapers published a photo of Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and hands handcuffed behind his back during questioning at a Carabinieri station in Rome, in violation of Italian law protecting the dignity of suspects. Among those in the interrogation room was Varriale, who said he used his phone to film the incident but did not transmit the video. The blindfolding incident was the subject of a separate investigation.