US students guilty of killing Italian policeman

a person sitting in a chair talking on the phone: Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (L) and Finnegan Lee Elder appeared in court last month © Reuters Gabriel Natale-Hjorth (L) and Finnegan Lee Elder appeared in court last month

Two US students have been found guilty of murdering a police officer in Italy following a year-long trial.

Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, was stabbed to death as he investigated a drug deal gone wrong in central Rome in 2019.

Californian students Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were both given life sentences.

Elder had admitted to stabbing Rega 11 times but maintained that he acted in self-defence, believing the police officer was a criminal.

Natale-Hjorth, 20, was convicted of helping him to conceal the weapon. Under Italian law, accomplices can also be charged with murder.

The two men had argued that Rega and his police partner, who were not wearing uniforms, failed to identify themselves - although the other officer denied this.

Last month prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta argued that the pair should be given life sentences, which she described as "a just penalty".

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were teenagers at the time of the incident.

a hand holding a cell phone: At the time of his death, Rega had only just returned to duty from his honeymoon © Reuters At the time of his death, Rega had only just returned to duty from his honeymoon

Rega's murder received huge amounts of attention in Italy.

At the time of his death, the officer had only just returned to duty from his honeymoon. Large crowds turned out for his funeral at the same church where was married just 43 days earlier.

But there have also been questions about how the case has been handled.

How did Rega die?

Elder and Natale-Hjort were on holiday in Rome when they tried to buy cocaine in the Trastevere area, near Vatican City, in July 2019.

Investigators said a man named Sergio Brugiatelli helped the pair to find a dealer. But the students were allegedly sold crushed aspirin instead of drugs.

Both men then stole Mr Brugiatelli's rucksack, and demanded their money back and a gram of cocaine in exchange.

At this point, Mr Brugiatelli rang the police. Undercover officers Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, arrived soon after.

During the ensuing brawl Rega was stabbed 11 times with an 18cm (7 inch) blade, which Elder brought with him from the US. Police said they later found the weapon hidden behind a false panel in the students' hotel room.

Speaking to the court in March, Elder said he stabbed Rega because he feared he was being attacked by a "thug".

"As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively took my knife and hit him a few times in an effort to get him off me," he said.

How has the case been handled?

There have been a number of questions raised about the case in both Italian and US media.

A leaked photo showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and restrained at a police station appeared in the press shortly after their arrest. Rega's partner, Mr Varriale, later said he had filmed Natale-Hjorth's interrogation on his phone, which is where the photo came from.

a close up of a newspaper: One of the US suspects, Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, was tied and blindfolded after his arrest © Getty Images One of the US suspects, Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, was tied and blindfolded after his arrest

The police officer said he and Rega identified themselves on the night. But the US students say they saw no evidence they were police.

And Mr Varriale also faced a "dereliction of duty" charge for not carrying his weapon at the time. Neither he nor Rega were armed, which is against procedure.

Defence lawyers for the US students also raised questions after talks between Elder and his lawyer appeared in the Italian media which suggested he had confessed. But the defence said the transcripts were badly translated and seemed to omit parts of their conversation.

US students guilty of killing Italian policeman