Cerciello Rega murder case reopened, sentences annulled

Gabriel Natale Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder

 ROME – The Supreme Court of Cassation has overturned the sentences of Americans Finnegan Lee Elder, 23, and Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 22, who were convicted of stabbing Carabiniere Mario Cerciello Rega to death in Rome in 2019.

 The initial trial in May of 2021 sentenced both men to life in prison. In March of 2022, an appeals court sentenced Elder to 24 years and Natale to 22. And on Wednesday, a second appeal was accepted for both men after five hours of deliberation from the court. 

 The Cassation accepted the second appeal for Elder, the main perpetrator of the murder, due to aggravating circumstances and resistance to a public official. The appeal will happen in the coming months and could decrease Elder’s 24-year sentence to less than 14. 

 For Natale, a new trial will be conducted to reassess his complicity during the murder. This could also decrease his 22-year sentence. 

 A primary focus of the upcoming retrials is the defendants’ argument that they were unaware of Cerciello Rega’s status as a Carabiniere. 

 “We are satisfied with the annulment of the sentence,” said one of Elder’s lawyers, Roberto Capra. “There will be a new trial to determine whether or not the carabinieri qualify as members of the police force. And this opens the way for a new quantification of the sentence.”

 Natale’s lawyers, Adnkronos Francesco Petrelli and Fabio Alonzi, also expressed their satisfaction regarding the retrial. 

 “The Court has evidently recognized the validity of our complaints on the errors made by the judges of the merits who had considered Gabriel Natale’s participation in the murder. An affirmation incompatible with all the results of the trial,” said Petrelli. 

 The murder, which took place on the night of 26 July 2019, occurred while the two Americans were in Italy for holiday. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy drugs in Trastevere, they stole the backpack of Sergio Brugiatelli who had initially led them to the dealer.

They demanded money and drugs from Brugiatelli, who called the carabinieri: Cerciello and his colleague, Andrea Varriale. The two officers arrived at the scene, unarmed and dressed in civilian clothing. 

 Elder stabbed Cerciello 11 times within 20 seconds with a knife that he had brought from the US. Following the attack and the death of Cerciello, the two fled the scene and returned to their hotel where they were arrested the next morning.

 After the Cassation's decision on Wednesday, Natale “burst into tears," adding that he was “happy also for his family.” .

 Elder said that “the truth is finally emerging: one could immediately understand what had happened -- I didn’t know that Cerciello was a Carabiniere.” 

 But despite the defendants’ optimism for their respective retrials, Rosa Maria Esilio, the widow of Cerciello Rega, said that she was “embittered and disoriented” following the decision to reassess the two cases. 

 Her lawyer, Massimo Ferrandino, said: “Lawyers must never comment on the sentences, at most they can appeal them. Adhering to this principle, however, I can say that my feelings and reflections after yesterday’s sentence are common to many Italian citizens.”