Verdict imminent for Bay Area college students in killing of Italian police officer

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The verdict will be announced Wednesday for two college students from the Bay Area who are accused of murdering a police officer in Rome in July 2019.

On the eve of a verdict in the case, 21-year-old Finnegan Elder of San Francisco appears to be accepting that he could face more time in prison, for stabbing an Italian police officer to death.

Ethan Elder met with his son last week and gave the I-Team this quote: "Dad, I know I should do some time for what happened. I stupidly brought a knife to Rome. But I didn't attack and tackle anyone from behind them at three in the morning."

That's the defense, that Finnegan Elder and his friend, 20-year-old Gabriel Natale Hjorth of Marin County, were on a street corner to meet someone associated with a drug dealer. But, two police officers in plainclothes approached.

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Finnegan Elder testified on March 1st, "Those men directly attacked us, without having announced or identified themselves as police."

Elder told the court he thought he was in a life or death struggle with a gang member connected to the drug dealer. Officer Mario Cerciello Rega outweighed Elder by a hundred pounds and had him pinned to the ground. Elder reached for a combat-style knife with a 7-inch blade.

Elder said, "After several hits, he grabbed my hand, the one that I was holding the knife with, and tried to turn it against me."

Officer Cerciello Rega died after suffering eleven stab wounds, leaving behind a widow he had married just the month before. She attended each hearing in this case, clutching her husband's photo.

The Elder family attorney, Craig Peters, is now in Rome for the verdict. He said Finnegan should not be convicted of murder: "I think a fair verdict would recognize that those boys made significant mistakes that night. They went out to buy drugs, they shouldn't have been doing that. Finnegan had a knife with him, he shouldn't have had a knife with him."

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Craig Peters outlined problems with the prosecution's case. Supervisors in the Italian police force, the Carabinieri, initially said Cerciello Rega's partner did not have time to fire his weapon at the fleeing Americans. And the officers' superiors tried to cover for them, telling reporters they had recovered handguns from the officers that night. Then, it became clear neither officer brought their service weapons, their police badges, or their handcuffs to the meeting with the Americans that early morning.

Peters argued, "Ultimately, there were other people that made some really bad decisions, as well. And had those other bad decisions not been made, again, Cerciello Rega would be here today, had the Carabinieri simply followed protocols for an undercover operation."

Another issue - a cell phone video of Gabriel Natale Hjorth blindfolded at the police station, video shot by the officer he had struggled with just hours before.

The prosecutor has asked for life sentences. A panel of two professional judges and six civilian judges could find the defendants "guilty" but reduce the sentence, convict on lesser charges, or find them "not guilty".

Peters said, "It's certainly not life, it's certainly not 25 years. That would be disproportionate and that would be giving the Carabinieri a pass."

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The I-Team reached Gabriel Natale Hjorth's parents, but they declined to comment today. Finnegan Elder's mother, Leah, texted us, "I love my son, he does not deserve the entire blame of wrong for that night."

The panel of judges has requested overnight accommodations for tomorrow, so the verdict could come out Wednesday or Thursday.

Dan has reported on the case in an hour-long documentary called "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome". You can stream it right now on-demand on our 'ABC 7 Bay Area' connected TV app on Roku, Amazon Fire, and Apple TV. It's in the featured row.

VIDEO: '32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome'
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ABC7 I-Team's Dan Noyes reveals what led up to that night in July 2019 when an Italian police officer was killed. Find out in the ABC7 Original, "32 Seconds: A Deadly Night in Rome."



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