'They're telling me I killed a cop,' US student in Rome told mother
Finnegan Lee Elder (AFP)

The US student who admitted stabbing a policeman in Rome last year was shaking and crying inside a police station after learning the attack was fatal, his mother testified Thursday at his trial.

Finnegan Elder, 20, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 19, face life sentences for the July 2019 death of police officer Mario Cerciello Rega during a botched drug bust in Rome while they were on holiday.

The case -- which triggered an outcry of public sympathy for the newlywed Cerciello -- hinges on whether the defendants knew that Cerciello and his partner were police officers when they fought on a dark Rome street.

Elder's mother Leah, testifying at the trial, that began in February, described the video call she received from her distraught son after his arrest.

"He said 'Mom, I'm at a police station', and then he said, 'It's bad, it's really, really bad'," she testified in tears.

She said he added: "They're telling me that I killed a cop. They're saying that I stabbed a cop."

Her son, Leah Elder, she said, "was crying and shaking and he looked like his hands were behind his back".

Prosecutors charge the attack on Cerciello and his partner was unprovoked, but the defendants say they were jumped from behind and believed their assailants were thugs sent by a drug dealer who had swindled them when they earlier tried to buy cocaine.

Elder, who was 19 at the time of the attack, has admitted stabbing Cerciello with an eight-inch combat knife, but insists he did not know Cerciello was a police officer as neither he nor his partner identified themselves or showed their badges.

"He specifically told me, 'If I had known they were police, I wouldn’t have done anything,'" testified Craig Peters on Thursday, a lawyer and friend of the Elder family who spoke with Elder in prison after the attack.

Cerciello's partner Andrea Varriale has testified that both identified themselves as police with their badges, although Cerciello's was never found.

Natale-Hjorth, who fought with Varriale during the attack, faces the same charges as Elder, as anyone who participates indirectly in a murder can face homicide charges under Italian law.

Natale-Hjorth's mother, Heidi Hjorth, also took the stand Friday, telling Cerciello's family sitting in the front row that "my full heart goes out to them.

"I am suffering today because my son cannot return home with me right now, but I feel a tremendous sadness for the mother, the wife and brother I see here today that their son, their husband, their brother will not return to them," she said.

The trial is expected to wrap up around February.

© 2020 AFP