A man convicted of procuring the heroin that led to a woman’s death by overdose has had his jail term reduced on appeal in a judgement on Wednesday that followed a 21-year court saga.
Lawrence Attard, now 56, had been arraigned back in November 1999, pleading not guilty to having procured the drug that had been administered to 20-year old Therese Agius by a third party, Joseph Azzopardi.
The woman’s body was discovered floating at sea off the Delimara coast, hands and feet trussed up with blue nylon wire.
Attard was charged with having caused the young woman’s death as well as possessing heroin under circumstances indicating that the drug was not for his personal use and also with being a relapser.
Azzopardi, known as iz-Zikizokk, was subsequently convicted and condemned to a 29-year jail term that was confirmed on appeal in 2018.
Meanwhile, proceedings against Attard dragged on, prompting the man’s lawyer to file two applications before the Constitutional Court, claiming that the excessive delay in the judicial process amounted to a breach of his fundamental right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time.
That court upheld the applicant’s claim, yet, in spite of a judgment being handed down in 2004, criminal proceedings before the Magistrates’ Court were only concluded in 2013, with Attard being sentenced to six years in prison and a €10,000 fine.
That judgment was annulled on appeal on the grounds that the Magistrates’ Court had cited the wrong provisions of law, with the second instance court ordering the case to be heard all over again.
Following final oral submissions in October 2020, the case was put off for final judgment.
Madam Justice Edwina Grima dwelt upon the picture that emerged from the records of the case, involving a number of drug users who regularly visited a Gżira apartment belonging to a mother and son, to purchase drugs.
The victim was one of them.
On that fateful night of October 1, 1999, Agius had been supplied with three packets of heroin by Attard, who, however, denied that allegation, saying that it was not him who had handed over the drug.
Various witnesses had testified that since the young woman did not know how to self-administer the drug, it was Azzopardi who used to inject her in her final days.
The fatal dose had been administered in spite of another friend of the victim warning Azzopardi of the potentially fatal mix of heroin and a tranquiliser she had just ingested.
Indeed, Agius had immediately lost consciousness after that final shot.
When her badly decomposed body was eventually recovered from the sea, it was difficult to determine the cause of death.
But fresh puncture marks on the back of her hand, coupled with toxicological results confirmed that the victim had been administered “morphine and/or heroin at some time prior to her death” and had been put in the water when lifeless.
The court observed that the appellant’s version was not quite credible, since he remembered many details but “conveniently denied having handed her the drug on that fateful night”.
The evidence showed that Attard had trafficked and procured that fatal dose, the court said.
When meting out punishment, the court had to bear in mind the delay in the proceedings for which, most of the time, the accused was not to blame.
But that did not mean that he was not to pay for his criminal behaviour which had led to the loss of a young life.
Although pending the proceedings the appellant appeared to have reformed himself, the court had no option but to impose an effective jail term.
In the light of such considerations, the court reduced the punishment towards the minimum to make good for the breach of rights suffered over the years of delay, declaring the accused guilty and condemning him to a two-year jail term instead of six and a €1,000 fine.
The time spent under preventive arrest between November 1999 and February 2001 were to be deducted.
The appellant was also to pay €958.61 in court expenses.
Lawyer Edward Gatt assisted the appellant.
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