A man who stands accused of murdering his partner in Gozo last month confessed to the police to strangling her because he thought she was cheating on him, a magistrate heard on Friday.
The spontaneous confession took place while he was smoking a cigarette as he waited to enter an interrogation room, Police inspector Kurt Zahra said.
He was testifying in the first sitting of the compilation of evidence against Lawrence Abina, a 30-year-old from Ghana, who stands charged with the murder of 49-year-old Rita Ellul on February 26.
Ellul was found dead inside an Għajnsielem apartment in Triq Dun Frangisk Mizzi last month.
Abina is pleading not guilty to the charges brought against him.
Zahra told Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech that although there were no signs of violence on her body or any signs of an altercation inside the apartment, which was found tidy, an autopsy concluded that her cause of death was asphyxiation due to pressure around the neck.
The inspector said Ellul and Abina had been in a relationship and the woman would frequently cross over to Gozo to spend time in his apartment, which he shared with another man.
He said it was Abina who called 112 on February 26, saying he found her dead in bed upon his arrival from work. He said he had last spoken to her at around 7am, before he left for work.
Inspector Zahra said a medical team and court experts at first said there were no external signs of violence.
Autopsy confirmed asphyxia
An autopsy, however, confirmed that the likely cause of death was asphyxia due to external pressure. The time of death was around 7am.
The corpse was taken to Mater Dei Hospital for further tests which confirmed the conclusions of the first autopsy, triggering a fully-fledged homicide investigation.
Police scouted the area for CCTV footage and spoke to Abina’s employer, who said that he had arrived at work at 7.45am on the day of the murder, 45 minutes late.
During the first interrogation, Abina told the police about his relationship with Ellul, saying he loved her and that everything was fine.
However, he later admitted that not all was rosy when confronted with a domestic violence report filed by Ellul in 2020 and over which he still has pending criminal proceedings.
In that report, Ellul had told police it was not the first time that Abina had been violent.
Anonymous tip-off on domestic violence
Abina at first said it was a one-off incident but later told police that there were trust issues as both were accusing each other of being unfaithful.
The domestic violence report had been filed anonymously by someone who claimed to be Ellul’s cousin who told the police that Abina was being violent.
The case was investigated and Abina was charged with the crime.
Inspector Zahra said that while he waiting for his second interrogation, Abina asked to smoke a cigarette and that was when he spontaneously admitted to killing Ellul to Assistant Police Commissioner Sandro Gatt, who happened to be smoking there too.
Gatt testified he had told Abina that he “was in big trouble” and that it was better if he told the truth. He said Abina burst into tears, saying he had “put his hands around her neck and pressed hard”, falling to his knees and pleading for help. Asked why he had done it, he said it was because she cheated on him.
Abina was immediately taken into the interrogation room where he repeated the admission to Inspector Zahra in a recorded interview.
'I thought of murdering her from the previous evening'
Abina had added that he had been thinking about murdering her since the previous evening because he said he could not bear the thought of Ellul going back to Malta to meet other guys.
The inspector said that on the morning of the murder he woke up and dressed for work, kissed her goodbye, and as he was walking out, he felt “something pulling back”. He climbed on top of her in bed, put his hands around her neck and strangled her.
Abina told the police that he had thought about stopping which he was strangling her but figured that she would call the police if he did.
An analysis of CCTV footage confirmed that Abina left the apartment at 7.40am, returned at 12.09pm and called 112 at 12.16pm.
The inspector said there had been a shift in his demeanour since his admission, going from assertive to apologetic and sorry for what he had done.
He said the police had also spoken to Josephine Borg, known as Joyce, who was Rita’s best friend and who told them about their frequent fights and how he used to hit her.
She told the police she was worried that “he was going to kill her”.
She also said that Ellul knew he had cheated on her so made up a story that she was often texting a made-up guy called Stefan simply to make him jealous.
Under cross-examination, it emerged that Abina had spoken to a lawyer prior to his interrogation but the lawyer was not present during questioning.
The case continues next week.
Lawyer Joseph Grech represented the accused.
Lawyers Anthony Vella and Nathanial Falzon from the attorney general's office and inspectors Kurt Zahra, Josef Gauci and Wayne Camilleri prosecuted.
Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri, who are both also lawyers, appeared parte civile on behalf of the victim's family.