San Francisco, CA – The families of two San Francisco men who were sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for murdering a plainclothes military police officer in Italy said they are outraged the convicted killers received the maximum sentence.
“It’s bewildering,” Craig Peters, an attorney representing 21-year-old Finnegan Elder’s family, told KABC. “They gave him and they gave [his co-defendant] a sentence that is befitting a mafia boss who wantonly kills innocent people.”
“How could these boys possibly be in that same league?” Peters asked.
Elder and his friend, 20-year-old Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, got themselves in a predicament in July of 2019 after they stole a drug dealer’s backpack during a cocaine deal that went bad, The New York Times reported.
The duo subsequently arranged to meet up in Rome with someone they believed was associated with the dealer so they could collect money in exchange for returning the backpack, The New York Times reported.
But when they arrived to the 3 a.m. exchange on July 26, 2019, they were confronted by Deputy Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, and his partner, Deputy Brigadier Andrea Varraile.
Both officers were in street clothes.
Brig. Varraile, 27, said he and Brig. Cerciello Rega were dispatched to collect the backpack and insisted they both announced themselves and showed their military police badges as they made contact with Elder and Natale-Hjorth, The New York Times reported.
During the 32-second brawl that ensued, Elder stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times with a seven-inch military-style knife as officer Varraile fought with Natale-Hjorth nearby.
Elder later claimed the officers attacked them and that he stabbed the officer in self-defense.
“In the blink of an eye, they turned around and rushed us without saying a single word,” the suspect testified on March 1, according to KABC.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth fled the scene and were arrested at their hotel a block away several hours later, The New York Times reported.
Brig. Cerciello Rega died from his stab wounds.
He had gotten married one month earlier and had just returned from his honeymoon shortly before his murder, The New York Times reported.
Elder and Natale-Hjorth were convicted Wednesday of murder, assault, resisting a public official, carrying a weapon without just cause, and attempted extortion.
The were both sentenced to life in prison for Brig. Cerciello Rega’s murder.
Attorneys for the convicted cop-killers said they will appeal the verdicts, The New York Times reported.
Elder’s lawyer, Renato Borzone, said the conviction is “a disgrace for Italy.”
“It’s a sentence that leaves me dumbstruck,” Natale-Hjorth’s attorney, Fabio Alonzi, told The New York Times. “It does not make a dent in our belief that Gabriel Natale-Hjorth is innocent.”
Peters said in a statement that he is “confounded” by the verdict and declared it “lacks both reason and compassion,” KABC reported.
The lawyer blamed law enforcement for Brig. Cerciello Rega’s murder.
“[The verdict] lays all the blame with two young boys, while holding blameless the Carabinieri who failed to follow basic police procedures which, had they been followed, would have Cerciello Rega with us here today,” Peters declared.
“This verdict makes a mockery of justice by believing an incoherent story professed by an admitted liar, and then compensating that liar with an award of 50,000, while subjecting these boys to a sentence that is reserved for unredeemable, career criminals that commit premeditated killings,” he wrote.
Peters said the panel of judges proved that “those in a position of power, the Carabinieri and the prosecutors, can lie and mislead and they will not be held responsible.”
He complained Elder didn’t “receive credit” for telling “the truth” and acknowledging his “own part in wrongdoing,” KABC reported.
“This is a sad day for holding those in positions of power accountable. This is a sad day for justice,” Peters wrote. “I look forward to having the appellate court, with experienced, rational judges, objectively review the facts to determine a just outcome in this case for these two young boys.”
Natale-Hjorth and Elder remained incarcerated in Rome for the past 21 months pending the outcome of the trial, The New York Times reported.
Peters said they are hopeful the appeal will yield a different result.
“Hopefully we will have more sophisticated, more experienced, more reasonable and rational judges who will actually do the hard work of trying to make sense of all this and then fairly apportion justice,” he told KABC.
Elder’s mother, Leah Elder, told the news outlet she is “stunned, heartbroken, [and] angry” about her son’s life sentence.
“I’m gonna focus on Finn’s survival right now. It’s my only concern,” she said.
Natale-Hjorth’s family said in a statement that they were “astounded” to learn he had been “convicted, without a shred of evidence against him, of a crime he did not commit,” KABC reported.
“We can only hope that the appeals court will make its decision based on the facts, as opposed to the prosecution’s unfounded arguments, and therefore recognize Gabriel’s innocence,” the statement read.