ROME — A 21-year-old San Francisco man on trial in the death of an Italian police officer told a court in Rome that he “panicked” and believed the officer, who he said did not identify himself, would kill him.
The man, Finnegan Elder, spoke publicly for the first time on Monday, to give his version of the events that led to the death of Deputy Brig. Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old, newly married officer in the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police force, in July 2019.
Clutching several handwritten sheets of paper, his hand trembling at times, Mr. Elder said he had been acting in self-defense when he repeatedly stabbed the man who had just tackled him to the ground and was trying to restrain him.
“I remember little of the next few moments except for feelings of shock and terror,” Mr. Elder said. “I do remember, however, that I could feel his hands pressing on my chest and then on my neck with pressure, as if he were trying to strangle or choke me. At this stage, I panicked and believed he wanted to kill me. As soon as I felt his hands squeezing my neck, I instinctively brought out my knife and hit him three times in an effort to get him off me.”
Panicked, he switched the hand with which he was holding the knife and stabbed him again, he said. “All this lasted a few seconds,” he said.
Mr. Elder was addressing the court during the final scheduled hearing of a yearlong trial that has grabbed headlines in Italy and the United States, in part because of the young age of those involved.
Mr. Elder is on trial with Gabriel Natale Hjorth, 20, a San Francisco school friend he had joined for two days in Rome during the last leg of a summer trip in Europe. On Monday, before the hearing began, the two young men sat side by side in a barred cell on the side of the courtroom and chatted about their days in prison, fellow inmates and music.
Mr. Cerciello Rega’s death capped a chaotic evening that began when the two Americans decided to go to a trendy downtown Rome neighborhood to buy cocaine.
“I thought that it would be something that would help us enjoy the night, and from past experience I thought the effect of the drug would make us feel better and give us some energy to walk around to get to bars and pubs,” Mr. Elder told the court.
Things didn’t go as planned. The drug deal fell through when several men — Carabinieri officers who the two Americans thought were criminals — abruptly interrupted the transaction. Their money gone, Mr. Elder stole a backpack belonging to the middleman who had arranged the sale.
Mr. Cerciello Rega died while attempting to retrieve the backpack with his partner, Andrea Varriale, at a rendezvous near the hotel where the two Americans were staying.
The backpack had included the middleman’s phone and Mr. Natale Hjorth had been able negotiate with him for its return in exchange for money and cocaine.
Mr. Elder said he had brought a knife with him to the rendezvous because “it gave me a sense of protection.”
Mr. Varriale testified in court last summer that he and his partner had clearly identified themselves as Carabinieri officers when they approached the two younger men on the dark street corner.
Mr. Elder said Monday that the two plainclothes officers had not spoken. He said they had approached “as if they wanted to rob or hurt us, without saying a word, and without showing any I.D. or any other object. They didn’t even say polizia, which sounds like the English word police.”
He continued, “As far as I remember I didn’t hear a single word, only a mumbled cry of pain when I regretfully hit the man who I later learned was a police officer.”
Mr. Elder said that when he returned to the hotel after the altercation, he was certain that he had been attacked by a criminal. It was only after he had been arrested and interrogated that he learned that he had killed an officer.
“I was shocked and confused” he said, because in America, police officers “behave very differently. Officers announce themselves and draw their weapons if someone refuses to identify themselves,” he said. Neither officer was carrying a weapon that night.
Mr. Elder spoke for just over an hour, a “spontaneous declaration,” that in the Italian legal system means that there is no examination or cross-examination. He briefly spoke about the “constant feelings” of anxiety, panic attacks, depression and grief with which he was struggling.
Next Saturday, the prosecution will deliver its final arguments and ask for convictions. The presiding judge, Marina Finiti, told Mr. Elder before he began that whatever he said could be used against him in court.
“After listening to all these hearings, I realize it is difficult to believe a person in my position, but what I am telling you today is the truth,” Mr. Elder said.