A lawyer representing Alfred Degiorgio insisted on Wednesday that his client would suffer irremediable prejudice if he was sent to trial for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia while being targeted by a non-stop media bombardment.

The argument was made by lawyer William Cuschieri as the First Hall, Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction started to consider an application filed last week where Degiorgio claimed that his presumption of innocence was being breached by a virulent press campaign as well as statements by public figures and by certain court pronouncements. He requested a remedy, including a postponement of the trial.

Alfred Degiorgio and his brother George have been under arrest since December 2017 and are awaiting trial for the car bomb murder which took place in October 2017. 

Cuschieri said that ever since their arrest the Degiorgios had undergone trial by the media.

Now Alfred Degiorgio was seeking an adequate remedy for the ‘irremediable prejudice’ to his presumption of innocence.

Moreover, he was requesting postponement of any trial “in the near future” by way of an interim measure alongside his breach of rights claim.

Cuschieri said the media bombardment included extensive reporting featuring the brothers’ mugshots and titles screaming “hitmen,” “cold-blooded murderers,” “criminals” and so forth.

Degiorgio, the lawyer observed, was being accused of wilful murder, which carried a possible life sentence. Therefore, he had no option but to face trial by jury. He could not choose to be tried before a judge without a jury.

And jurors reflected public opinion.

Judging by comments on social media, there appeared to be a negative sentiment in respect of the accused.

The press, Cuschieri said, were not solely responsible for fueling such sentiment.

On one occasion, during his New Year’s address to the nation, former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, had declared that they “would not bow to criminals,” whilst footage was aired of the December 2017 Marsa raid when the Degiorgios were arrested. 

The message sent out to the ordinary viewers of average intelligence was clear enough, said Cuschieri.  They could make the association between those “criminals” and the Degiorgios.

“When a pardon was granted to someone else, he was not branded a ‘criminal.’ Rather what he says is made out to be Bible truth,” Cuschieri went on in a possible reference to self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma who was granted a presidential pardon in exchange for information about the journalist’s murder.

The Degiorgios’ former co-accused, Vincent Muscat, also struck a plea bargain and was sentenced to 15-years imprisonment for his role in the murder.

Need for a fair trial

Cuschieri insisted that Alfred Degiorgio's trial should only take place when all safeguards were in place to ensure that this was a fair trial and his rights were observed.   

There needed to be a sufficient lapse of time to clear the public’s mind, for both jurors and judge to be detached.”

Mr Justice Grazio Mercieca asked the lawyer whether he felt that postponing the trial would stop the media bombardment. 

“It would some day,” replied the lawyer, drawing a parallel with the case of Vincent Muscat who was scheduled to face trial over his alleged involvement in the failed armed robbery at the HSBC headquarters.

After Muscat’s arrest over the Caruana Galizia murder, the HSBC trial was postponed to allow a ‘cooling off’ period, he said.

State Advocate Chris Soler countered that interim measures were granted in exceptional circumstances where the right to life and protection against torture came into play.

Press campaigns always took place and social media comments were not  relevant as evidence at the trial, he said. 

Public comments by the prime minister were “purely political.”

And when describing the journalist’s murder as “a barbaric act,” former prime minister Joseph Muscat did not pin guilt on anyone.

“Would any genuine and honest person deny that what happened to Daphne Caruana Galizia was a barbaric act? Yet nothing detracts from Alfred Degiorgio’s presumption of innocence,” argued Soler.

The legal system itself provided necessary safeguards by granting the accused the right to appeal the jury verdict.

Moreover, the judge presiding the trial was bound to direct the jury to focus solely on evidence produced in court, Soler said. 

Public interest

Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia., representing the family recalled that when former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi faced criminal proceedings the whole world knew and wrote about it.

After his trial, the Italian politician had filed a breach of rights claim which ended up before the European Court of Human Rights. That court declared that when dealing with a crime of public interest, such comments were expected.

Indeed, it was journalists’ duty to inform the public, the European Court had declared.

In actual fact, the Degiorgios featured in faithful reporting of court proceedings which were privileged in terms of law and other stories triggered by the brothers themselves. Why had Degiorgio never asked the criminal courts to block such reporting?

Requesting the constitutional court to order postponement of the trial would be asking that court to take over the functions of the ordinary courts.

The court is to decree upon the interim measure in chambers.

The case continues in October.

Lawyer Maurizio Cordina also represented the State Advocate’s Office.

Lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Eve Borg Costanzi also represented the Caruana Galizia family.

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