ROME – Two former schoolmates from California sat impassively in a crowded courtroom Wednesday for the start of their trial for the murder of a plainclothes Italian policeman while they were vacationing in Rome last summer.
In pre-trial court documents, prosecutors alleged that Finnegan Lee Elder, now 20, thrust an 18-centimeter (7-inch) knife repeatedly into Carabiniere Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello, while his friend, Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, now 19, scuffled with the officer's partner.
The jailed defendants have contended they didn't realize the officers were plainclothes police but mistook them for criminals following a thwarted cocaine sale hours earlier in a Rome nightlife district.
Just a row behind them, also listening intently but similarly showing little emotion, was the widow of Cerciello, who was killed on a street near the young Americans' hotel only days after he returned to duty after his honeymoon.
The killer “thrust numerous blows into his vital organs and fled, heedless to Cerciello dying," said Prosecutor Marina Sabina Calabretta.
Elder, according to pre-trial documents, admitted to the stabbing but said he acted in self-defense when he feared the burly Cerciello was strangling him. The defense on Wednesday sought to raise doubts about whether the defendants were mistreated or intimidated when first brought from their hotel for questioning at a station house.
Natale-Hjorth has also told authorities he acted in self-defense, alleging that he and his friend were assaulted by the police officers, so he scuffled with Cerciello's partner, Andrea Varriale. The partner suffered kicks and scratches, according to prosecutors.
Under Italian law, accomplices to an alleged murderer can also be charged with the murder itself. Italy's stiffest criminal punishment is life imprisonment.
At the trial, Ethan and Leah Elder sat tensely in a back row, leaning forward to see their son. But their view was largely blocked by armed penitentiary police officers who stood behind the defendants at all times.
When the defendants were led out of the courtroom during a recess, one of the defense lawyers asked if the parents, who live in San Francisco, could greet their son. Ethan Elder took a few steps, touched his son lightly on the arm, and pulling his wife's head close to his, stroked her hair in a gesture of affection their child could glimpse. He held up his hand in greeting, first to Natale-Hjorth, then to their son.
"With the truth will come justice,'' Ethan Elder said to reporters.
A lawyer for the Elders, Craig Peters, expressed the family's gratitude that “this process is finally moving forward, and we hope that this trial can stay focused on the facts of what happened that night."
Peters said the Elders were looking forward “to Finn coming home.”
The fatal encounter between the American tourists and the two officers on a nearly deserted Rome street had its genesis a handful of kilometers (couple of miles) away, in the nightlife district of Trastevere.
Both defendants have told Italian investigators they were swindled while trying to buy cocaine in Trastevere. Police and prosecutors have said they paid for the drug but didn't receive it because other Carabinieri officers on patrol in the area approached, and people scattered. The Americans, angry they received no cocaine, then snatched a knapsack, with a cellphone inside, belonging to the dealer's go-between, the prosecution contends.
Cerciello and Varriale were asked by supervisors to investigate the go-between's complaint to police about the bag. Prosecutors have said that the intermediary called his own cell phone, and Natale-Hjorth proposed giving the man back his knapsack but on condition he return the Americans' money and give them a gram of cocaine.
One apparent line of defense has been that the Americans believed that drug dealers had showed up for the pre-dawn rendezvous, not the go-between.
According to judicial documents, Natale-Hjorth claimed he didn’t know his friend had the knife. Prosecutors contend that after the stabbing, Natale-Hjorth hid the knife behind a panel in the ceiling of their hotel room.
When the Americans were taken to the station house for questioning, Natale-Hjorth was photographed blindfolded with a scarf as he sat handcuffed with his head bowed. Carabinieri officers allegedly circulated the photograph on phone chats, with the image winding up in Italian newspapers the next day.
Defense lawyers on Wednesday asked Judge Marina Finiti to let the blindfold incident be part of trial evidence. Prosecutors objected, saying that matter was being handed in a separate criminal case against the Carabinieri involved in the blindfolding incident. Judge Finiti was expected to rule on the evidence request at the next hearing, on March 9.