A man accused of brutally raping and killing Polish student Paulina Dembska has been found insane at the time of the murder.

The court’s ruling, however, based on the findings of three psychiatrists, does not mean that Abner Aquilina walks free for the murder.

The psychiatrists, Anthony Dimech, Anton Grech and George Debono, based their conclusions on the fact that he was delusional, his recollection of the murder, his past substance abuse, and his past experiences.  

Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg can contest the insanity findings at the compilation of evidence stage or she can opt to proceed with what is known as an insanity trial, or ġurin in Maltese.

This trial will be limited in scope.

What is an insanity trial? 

If the Attorney General does not contest the findings of the medical experts - and she has 30 days to do so - she could opt for an insanity trial.

Instead of deciding on Aquilina’s guilt or innocence, jurors will instead be tasked with deciding whether he was insane at the time of the murder.

If the insanity ruling is struck down, Aquilina will then be deemed fit to stand trial for the murder charge.

In 2019, a jury rejected a murder suspect’s insanity plea in the case of Michael Emmanuel, an Ivorian national accused of strangling his partner Maria Lourdes Agius.

Although a psychiatrist had deemed Emmanuel to be suffering from “acute psychosis” and therefore medically insane, jurors had turned down the plea.

And in 2007 a panel of jurors also decide that a man, Anthony Schembri, was not in a state of insanity when he murdered his wife, Doris.

The jurors decision in that case also went against the professional opinion of the court-appointed psychiatrists. 

How does the law define insanity?

Under Maltese law, a person is exempt from criminal responsibility if they were in a state of insanity at the time the offence was committed.

This is because each crime is made up of both intention, known as "mens rea", and the act itself known as "actus reus". So, if an accused person is found to have not fully grasped what they were doing, they cannot be found guilty of it because they did not legally intend to do it.

For insanity to be pleaded successfully to a criminal charge, it must be shown that at the time of the act or omission, the accused was suffering from "a disease of the mind" in consequence of which he was deprived of the capacity to understand the nature and quality of that act or omission or to understand that it was wrong.

It may also be argued that he was deprived of the capacity to choose whether or not to do that act of commission or omission. 

Can Aquilina walk free?

Even if insanity is confirmed during a ġurin or at the compilation stage, Aquilina will likely spend the rest of his life committed at Mount Carmel hospital.

People declared to be mentally ill at the time of the commission of the crime would not be able to leave the psychiatric hospital unit until they are certified to be mentally stable.

Legal experts point out that there have been cases in Malta where the accused spends more time in Mount Carmel than he or she would have spent in prison, had he been found guilty of the crime in question. 

The only scenario which could see him walk away scot-free is if a ġurin concludes he was not insane, and the subsequent trial finds him not guilty on the merits of the murder charge.

Uncertainty has hung over the case ever since Aquilina told doctors at Mount Carmel he had demonic powers and was possessed by the devil.

The court was previously adjourned until a report was prepared by three psychiatrists to examine the 20-year-old accused and testify on whether he was insane at the time of allegedly committing the offence.

In February, psychiatrist Joseph Roger Saliba told the court that Aquilina had refused to take his medication while at Mount Carmel, and told doctors he was going to be crucified on an upside-down cross.

"He was completely naked, holding his penis in his hand and ordering us to kneel before him," Saliba testified. 

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