Trial begins for jailed American pals in policeman's slaying

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Gabriel Natale Hjorth and Finnegan Lee Elder attend the opening of the trial for the killing of Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome , TO SEND , Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

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.