The owner of a Mellieħa diving school has been cleared of the involuntary manslaughter of a diver who died close to the Blue Hole in Dwejra in 2015 after a court ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.

Magistrate Joseph Mifsud ruled that although court experts had found that the regulator being used by the diver at the time of the incident was not in perfect working condition, this was not the only factor that contributed to the diver’s death.

Moreover, the prosecution had failed to prove the essential element that the death had been caused by the accused’s imprudence or negligence.

Magistrate Mifsud was ruling in the case against Jacqueline Rio Hedley, 39, from Mellieħa, who was charged with the involuntary homicide of Petrina Matthews, a 61-year-old British national who died while diving in Dwejra on March 10, 2015.

The court heard how Hedley had rented the diving equipment to Matthews and the divers and two instructors proceeded to Dwejra. The instructors testified that there had been no difficulties during the dive. Matthews surfaced with her instructor and started swimming towards the rocks when suddenly she was taken ill and lost consciousness.

Fellow divers and other diving instructors pulled Matthews to shore and gave her CPR for 40 minutes before she was pronounced dead by paramedics.

An autopsy at Mater Dei Hospital concluded that Matthews had died because of a pulmonary oedema of immersion, which is a condition directly linked to diving.

However, they also found that she had an enlarged heart muscle which could have been a condition present before the dive. Other complications could have been linked also to the fact that she was obese.

The court noted that a second autopsy carried out in the UK found none of this, with the coroner there declaring that she had died through natural causes. But aside from the medical aspects, the court ruled that the prosecution had failed to produce enough evidence to prove its case as it was expected to do.

Among other things, it failed to establish whether the accused had committed an act of omission or had in any way contributed to the incident. The prosecution had even failed to bring the most basic evidence that she was the owner of the diving school and that it was she who had rented the equipment to Matthews. Moreover, the prosecution had failed to prove that she knew that the regulator being used by Matthews was faulty or that she had failed to ensure that the equipment was serviced before use. 

Magistrate Mifsud said various experts concluded that it was not only the faulty regulator that had caused Matthews’ death.

The court heard an expert testify that the fault he had found in the regulator made it difficult to breathe through, especially under water. However, no witnesses testified that Matthews had any difficulty breathing during the dive.

Although this expert said the regulator was sent abroad for further testing, the results were not confirmed under oath and neither was the testing done in the presence of a court-appointed expert, forcing the court to ignore these tests.

Even the statements released by the accused to the police had to be ignored as these were taken before she was given the right to remain silent.

All these loopholes in the case gave the court no option but to clear the accused of all the charges brought against her.  

Inspector Bernard Charles Spiteri prosecuted. Lawyer JK Farrugia served as defence counsel. 

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