Retrial Ordered for Americans Convicted in Italian Officer’s Killing

The case of the two men, Finnegan Elder and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, who were both sentenced to more than two decades in prison, will now be sent to a new appeals court.

Two men, both with short, light brown hair, sit at a table in front of microphones. One wears a light blue face mask and a black North Face jacket with khaki green sleeves, the other has his arms crossed and is wearing a black face mask and a black jacket with gray sleeves.
Gabriel Natale Hjorth, left, and Finnegan Elder during a hearing in Rome in April 2021. Credit...Pool photo by Remo Casilli

Reporting from Rome.

Italy’s highest court on Wednesday ordered the retrial of two Americans who are serving time for the killing of an Italian police officer in Rome in July 2019, and their case will now go to a new appeals court in Rome.

The president of the five-judge high court, Monica Boni, read the verdict — a terse legal statement — in a courtroom late Wednesday night.

The court rules on questions of procedure and the correct application of laws, not on the merits of a case or the finding of guilt or innocence. It annulled parts of the sentences that had been handed down by lower courts and sent the case back to a court of appeals to reconsider.

The Americans, Finnegan Elder, 23, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 22, were sentenced to life in prison in 2021, Italy’s harshest punishment, for the killing of the officer, Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega of the carabinieri, or Italian military police. Their sentences were reduced on appeal in 2022. Mr. Elder, who stabbed the officer to death during a brief altercation, was sentenced to 24 years in prison, while Mr. Natale Hjorth, who is believed to have orchestrated the events that led to the death, is serving a 22-year term.

Neither defendant was in the courtroom for the verdict, which was met with silence. Apart from journalists, most of those in attendance were friends and family members of the slain carabiniere. His widow, Maria Rosa Esilio, expressed no emotion after the verdict was read.

The court will provide a detailed reasoning for its decision in coming weeks, issuing a directive to the court of appeals to reconsider certain aspects of the case.

In the case of Mr. Natale Hjorth, the appeals court will review whether he had been an accessory to the killing. For Mr. Elder, the appeals court will review the aggravating circumstances, which in this case relate to the fact that the victim was a police officer.

“The court acknowledged what we’ve been saying from the beginning, that there were a series of questions about whether or not he knew that Cerciello Rega was a carabiniere,” said Roberto Capra, one of Mr. Elder’s defense lawyers. “Now that will have to be clarified in a new trial.”

The state prosecutor could not be reached for comment after the verdict.

Mr. Natale Hjorth’s mother, Heidi Hjorth, called the news “amazing” and said that it had come after four years of suffering. “It gives Gabriel, our family and me a renewed feeling of hope and justice. We are all so relieved,” she wrote in a text message.

Earlier in the day, the court heard more than six hours of arguments, with the state prosecutor, defense lawyers and lawyers for the civil parties in the case, including Brigadier Cerciello Rega’s widow, offering opposing versions of the events that resulted in the death.

The killing and the case drew intense media scrutiny in Italy and in the United States, in part because of the young ages of those involved, including the officer, who was newly married.

The two Americans, who knew each other from high school in Marin County, Calif., were on summer vacation when they decided to meet up in Rome.

Shortly before midnight on July 25, 2019, after an attempt to buy cocaine went sour, Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth stole a backpack — containing a cellphone and house keys — from a man who had brokered the deal.

The man reported the theft and two plainclothes carabinieri officers — Deputy Cerciello Rega and his partner, Officer Andrea Varriale — were dispatched to help him retrieve the bag from the Americans, who had used the man’s cellphone to make contact and negotiate for its return. A rendezvous point was chosen not far from the hotel where Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth were staying.

What transpired when the carabinieri and the Americans crossed paths — an encounter that lasted less than 30 seconds — has been the crux of the case.

Mr. Elder and Mr. Natale Hjorth have testified that they acted in self-defense after being attacked by the officers, who they believed were criminal associates of the drug dealer. The officers did not identify themselves as being members of the carabinieri, the defendants said.

On the stand, Officer Varriale testified that he and his partner had shown their badges as they approached, clearly identifying themselves. The defendants, the prosecution argued, had attacked the officers to avoid arrest.

The court can also be asked to review the legal reasoning that led to the conviction, and both legal teams delivered lengthy arguments Wednesday that sought to undermine the rulings issued by the lower courts. They pointed out contradictions, inconsistencies and questioned the credibility of Officer Varriale, citing the appellate court’s own reservations about the truthfulness of some of his testimony.

But much of the legal saber-rattling of the day centered on the key question: Did the Americans, who were teenagers at the time of the crime, know that the two men dressed in plainclothes were actually law enforcement officers when they crossed paths on a street corner on a sultry Roman night?

Now a new court will be asked to re-examine some elements. 

“We are very happy,” said Renato Borzone, one of Mr. Elder’s lawyer. The court, he said, had “recognized that he never understood he was in front of a carabiniere.”

Leah Elder, Mr. Elder’s mother, said that she and her husband, Ethan, would visit their son in prison on Thursday morning, but that she was certain that he would have been watching the late-night news.

“When we see him tomorrow, we’ll explain more,” said Ms. Elder, who added in a telephone interview that she was in “kind of shock.”

“This court acknowledged that Finn’s version of what happened that night is the truth, and they want to know more of it,” she said.