Trial opens for Americans accused of killing Italian police officer during drug deal gone wrong

The two American students accused of killing an Italian police officer in Rome last summer – a case that has drawn comparisons to the murder probe of Amanda Knox – appeared in court Wednesday.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 20, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, are facing potential life sentences if convicted for the death of Mario Cerciello Rega, who was unarmed and on a plainclothes assignment with his partner when he was stabbed 11 times and left bleeding on a street near the Americans’ hotel in the early hours of July 26, 2019.

Prosecutors have alleged that Elder thrust a 7-inch knife repeatedly into the stocky police officer, while Natale-Hjorth scuffled nearby with the partner, Andrea Varriale, who was slightly injured. The officers, both members of the Carabinieri – Italy’s police force – had been investigating a drug deal gone wrong.

Gabriel Natale Hjorth attends the opening of the trial for the killing of Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome on Wednesday. (AP)

Gabriel Natale Hjorth attends the opening of the trial for the killing of Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome on Wednesday. (AP)

Both young men were in court on Wednesday, sitting near their lawyers with a pair of penitentiary police officers standing behind them. Elder's parents sat in the back row; the slain officer's widow sat in the second row.

ITALIAN POLICE OFFICER ALLEGEDLY KILLED BY AMERICAN TEENS REMEMBERED AS HERO

The first hearing was dealing largely with procedural matters. During a break, Elder held up his crossed fingers to his parents as he was being led out of the courtroom, the BBC reports.

Prosecutors previously said the teens had organized a rendezvous to obtain money and cocaine in exchange for a backpack they had snatched from an Italian man. The man, suspected of being an intermediary in the drug deal, had called police asking them to intervene.

Two Italian Carabinieri stand near where Rega was stabbed to death on July 26, 2019.

Two Italian Carabinieri stand near where Rega was stabbed to death on July 26, 2019. (AP)

Both teens have told investigators that they didn't know that the two officers were police as they were in plainclothes and didn't identify themselves – and say they were acting in self-defense. But their version contradicts that of Cerciello Rega's partner, who said they both showed their badges when they confronted the teens.

Elder’s lawyers and family members have quoted him as saying that he had mistaken the two officers for a pair of common criminals out to assault the Americans and that he was fighting for his life.

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Maria Rosaria Cerciello Rega, wife of Mario Cerciello Rega, and Paolo Cerciello Rega, his brother, attend the opening of the trial for the killing of the Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome on Wednesday.

Maria Rosaria Cerciello Rega, wife of Mario Cerciello Rega, and Paolo Cerciello Rega, his brother, attend the opening of the trial for the killing of the Italian policeman Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome on Wednesday.

According to judicial documents from early in the case, 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 the hotel room the young men were sharing.

The arrest of the Americans, in their hotel room, hours after the murder, sparked comparisons to that of another high-profile murder probe, which saw Amanda Knox, a U.S. university student living in Umbria, put on trial along with her then-boyfriend for the stabbing death of her British housemate, Meredith Kercher. After various trials, including several appeals, Knox was ultimately acquitted.

Knox has claimed Italian police mistreated and intimidated her.

In the first hours after the Americans were arrested for Cerciello Rega’s slaying and taken to a police station for questioning, Natale-Hjorth was photographed blindfolded with a scarf as he sat handcuffed with his head bowed. Investigated as a violation of the defendant’s rights in Italy, the blindfolding led to a criminal investigation of the police officer allegedly involved as well as internal disciplinary procedures.

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Cerciello Rega's funeral last July was held at the same church were his wedding had happened 43 days earlier.

Ethan Elder, father of Finnegan Lee Elder, attended the hearing Wednesday.

Ethan Elder, father of Finnegan Lee Elder, attended the hearing Wednesday.

“He worked as hard as a carabinieri, as a volunteer helping others, helping the poor, helping the weak, bringing his clothes to the train station, bringing food to the needy, accompanying the sick to Lourdes,” Giovanni Nistri, general commander of the Carabinieri, said at the time.

Fox News’ Lucia I. Suarez Sang and the Associated Press contributed to this report.