Trial of U.S. men accused of killing Italian policeman opens in Rome

By Domenico Lusi
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Trial of U.S. men accused of killing Italian policeman opens in Rome

Trial begins for two Americans accused of killing Italian police officer, in Rome

By Domenico Lusi

ROME (Reuters) - The trial of two young Americans accused of murdering an Italian policeman last year began in Rome on Wednesday and was adjourned to March 9 after a day devoted to procedural matters.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 20, and fellow student Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 19, were arrested on suspicion of murdering Mario Cerciello Rega in central Rome on July 26 in an incident that shocked Italians.

Elder is accused of stabbing the policeman after he intervened in a dispute that began over a drug deal involving the pair, police said at the time.

The defendants, from San Francisco, were both teenagers at the time of the incident. They have been held in Rome's Regina Coeli prison in Rome since their arrest.

Elder, who appeared in court wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans, was granted his request not to be filmed or photographed. Natale-Hjorth, wearing a dark sweater and jeans, allowed himself to be filmed.

Franco Coppi, the lawyer for the family of the slain officer, immediately asked for a brief adjournment "because some institutions want to be included as plaintiffs in the trial".

These included Italy's defence and interior ministries.

Wednesday's proceedings were limited to the admission of evidence and setting a timetable for future hearings.

Police say Cerciello Rega, unarmed and in plain clothes, was stabbed by Elder 11 times with an 18-cm (7-inch) blade as he was trying to arrest him and Natale-Hjorth on suspicion of stealing a backpack.

Elder has said he did not know that Cerciello Rega was a policeman.

Another officer at the scene, Andrea Varriale, was allegedly injured in the incident by Natale-Hjorth, after the pair stole the backpack from a drug-dealer who they believed had cheated them, according to police.

(Additional reporting By Gabriele Pileri; writing by Gavin Jones; editing by Giles Elgood)