ROME — An Italian jury on Wednesday convicted two Americans of murder, with a punishment of life in prison, a decision that comes nearly two years after the men had been charged in the killing of an Italian police officer while on vacation in Rome.

Finnegan Lee Elder, now 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, received Italy’s harshest possible sentences after a full day of jury deliberation.

The verdict is almost certain to be appealed. But it marks the conclusion of a lengthy initial trial that examined how a night that started with two Americans trying to buy drugs ended with an officer bleeding to death on the street, stabbed 11 times.

The case has attracted plenty of attention in Italy, in part because it is exceedingly rare for tourists to be charged with violent crimes. The carabinieri officer, Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, had been a newlywed and was hailed as a hero after his death, honored with a state funeral. Then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called his “broken life” a deep national wound.

The trial examined whether the two Americans, high school friends from California, knew whether Cerciello Rega and his partner were police officers during their late-night encounter. Elder, who admitted to the stabbing, said he thought he was being jumped by a drug dealer who’d tackled him and pinned him down. But Cerciello Rega’s partner described the encounter differently and said the officers had shown the Americans their badges.

Like his acquaintance, Natale-Hjorth had been charged with homicide, based on his involvement in the events that led to the slaying.

On Sept. 16, 2020, Finnegan Lee Elder apologized to the family of Mario Cerciello Rega in Rome. Elder was sentenced to life in prison on May 5, 2021. (The Washington Post)

As the defendants were ushered out of the courtroom, Elder’s father called out, “Finnegan, I love you,” according to the Associated Press. Cerciello Rega’s widow sobbed and hugged the slain officer’s brother.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth had started the evening of July 25, 2019, trying to score drugs in the lively Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. The two had given 80 euros to a middleman for cocaine. But they’d been swindled and received an over-the-counter pain medicine.

The Americans, as retribution, ran off with the middleman’s backpack, returning to the area of their hotel. The backpack contained the middleman’s phone, and when he called from another number, the Americans answered. They agreed to meet again.

That’s how, well after midnight, Elder and Natale-Hjorth were on the streets of Rome, trying to get their money back. They expected the middleman.

But instead, it was Cerciello Rega and his partner, Andrea Varriale, responding to the reported theft. The officers arrived in plainclothes, without their weapons.

During the trial, Varriale said that he and his partner had clearly identified themselves when they showed up on a dark street corner. Prosecutors said the Americans displayed “homicidal intent” when assaulting the officers.

But Elder described a scene in which he was defending himself against a person who had shown no ID and was trying to “strangle or choke me.” On the stand, Elder’s mother testified about receiving a video call from her son right after his arrest, in which he had called the situation “really, really bad.”

“They’re saying that I stabbed a cop,” she remembered him saying, while he was “crying and shaking.”

In a phone interview this week before the verdict, Elder’s uncle, Sean Elder, said his nephew had been in Europe in the summer of 2019, traveling by himself first in Germany. It was an experience that his family thought could help him.

“I think the hope was, on his parents’ part, that it would be a maturing experience for him,” the uncle said. “His mother had gone to Rome in her early 20s and worked as an au pair. She thought the same would be true for him, that being in a new environment and having to figure some things out on his own would be maturing for him. I think he was very depressed and was hoping for the same thing.”

Elder said his nephew had dealt with drug problems in high school and afterward. He’d attended a year of community college in San Diego before coming to Europe.

He’d met up in Rome with Natale-Hjorth, whom he knew from high school.

All across Europe, he’d carried a seven-inch combat knife — something he had purchased in California.

Elder said his nephew had become “very paranoid, and the reasons for that I am not exactly sure of.” In testimony, the defendant’s mother also described mental health issues and said her son had attempted suicide one year before the killing.

After the trial had begun, Finnegan Elder apologized in court for the killing and said he was “filled with remorse.”

“I’ll never be able to forgive myself for this, and I don’t expect Mr. Mario Cerciello’s family to ever forgive me, although I truly hope one day they will,” he said.