Our seemingly endless thirst for true crime mysteries might be quenched again with another murder allegedly committed by American students in Italy.
The episode apparently began when Bay Area teens Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, on vacation in Rome and looking to buy drugs, allegedly stole the backpack from a man who pointed them to a drug dealer, who then sold the boys fake drugs. After the boys demanded money and cocaine in return for the bag, the man went to the police.
When two plainclothes officers confronted Elder and Natale-Hjorth at the meeting point, an altercation allegedly broke out, which ended with Elder stabbing one of the officers to death.
After fleeing the scene, police allegedly identified the teens via surveillance video and went to their hotel room, where police discovered a bloody knife behind the ceiling panel. The boys also allegedly confessed. Italian media immediately jumped on the case, calling for justice for the slain officer.
It didn’t take long after news spread about the “confession” for doubt to be cast on the case. Surveillance footage is missing. There are gaps in the police timeline. An image surfaced showing Natale-Hjorth blindfolded by police, which is against the law in Italy. The boys contend that the police officers never identified themselves before initiating the confrontation, which led them to act in self-defense. Elder’s family said in a statement that the public only has an “incomplete account” of what happened.
Additional drama was injected into the case when a law enforcement document revealed that Natale-Hjorth claimed he didn’t know that Elder had a knife on him and that he didn’t even know a stabbing took place until later.
The accusations of sloppy police work invites comparisons to the Amanda Knox case, who was convicted, acquitted, convicted again, and finally acquitted again. That case also rested on a bloody knife, lack of surveillance footage, and a police-driven narrative in the Italian media.
The Knox case, with its juicy details and camera-ready defendant, captured the American media’s attention. This case could soon be heading down the same path.
While it promises to provide hours of content, the media attention will likely only make the case more difficult for the Elder and Natale-Hjorth families, who will have to deal with a language barrier and thousands of miles between them and their children.
The fact that the boys are allegedly already turning on each other only makes things more difficult, as it means their lawyers are unlikely to collaborate.
The Italian justice system is also “inquisitorial.” Unlike in the U.S., law enforcement can work on an investigation for months without being required to share information with the defense. And jury verdicts do not have to be unanimous to convict.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that their government will not move heaven and earth to protect them if they run afoul of the law overseas. In fact, an American consulate or embassy can do very little, besides get in touch with family back home and ensure fair treatment.