FBI witnesses who flew to Malta from the US to testify in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case will return back home without having set foot inside a courtroom.
The expert witnesses were due to testify under cross-examination in Wednesday's sitting, but ended up standing in the corridors of Valletta’s law courts after defence lawyers withdrew their original request to cross-examine them.
Defence lawyers withdrew the request two days ago, the court heard. By that point, arrangements for the FBI experts to be present in Malta for Wednesday's sitting had already been made.
The experts will fly back to the US on Thursday
One of the FBI experts arrived in Malta two days ago, with the other following on Tuesday, inspector Keith Arnaud told the court.
Degiorgio brothers George and Alfred as well as Vincent Muscat stand accused of having blown up Ms Caruana Galizia using a car bomb that went off as she was driving away from her Bidnija home in October 2017.
They were arrested and charged with that crime in December of that year, and have been held in custody since then.
Having crossed the Atlantic to testify in Wednesday's sitting, the FBI experts will now return to the US having done absolutely nothing at all.
Faced with the defence's arguments, magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit said that she could not force any party to cross examine witnesses.
She gave defence lawyers five days to make up their mind and decide whether they wanted to cross-examine the experts and set a new court date for June 6.
Sources told Times of Malta that the experts will fly back to the USA on Thursday, and will be flown back to Malta should defence lawyers change their mind and decide to proceed with a cross-examination.
Prosecutors as well as lawyers appearing on the Caruana Galizia family’s behalf slammed their defence counsel counterparts, saying their decision to withdraw a cross-examination request was in bad faith and intended to delay proceedings.
“This is truly embarrassing,” prosecutor Philip Galea Farrugia told the court.
Inspector Arnaud insisted that the witnesses should be cross-examined on Wednesday.
"We're not summoning a witness from Mellieħa," he fumed.
Lawyer Jason Azzopardi, appearing parte civile, echoed that request and accused the defence of playing for time.
Defence blames prosecution
Defence lawyer William Cuschieri insisted that was not the case.
The FBI experts had still been in the USA when the defence had withdrawn its cross-examination request, Dr Cuschieri argued. If the experts had come over to Malta, it was the prosecution’s fault, he said.
Rather than being in bad faith, Dr Cuschieri said, the prosecution was trying to deny his client, Mr Degiorgio, the right to consult with his lawyer before the FBI witnesses were cross examined.
He added that the request for the FBI witnesses to testify had only been made on behalf of one of the accused – Alfred Degiorgio – and not all of them.
Earlier in the sitting, the court heard from a car rental company owner, who told the court that Alfred Degiorgio had leased a car from him in the months prior to the murder.
Mr Degiorgio had initially leased a larger vehicle and then asked to have a smaller replacement.
The company owner had no documents related to that transaction, though, he told the court, because he tended to burn paperwork "to erase data and prevent bank fraud".
12.58pm That concludes today's court session.
Prosecutors will be fuming and the FBI experts are probably wondering if the transatlantic jet lag was worth their while, given that they did not even set foot inside the courtroom.
12.51pm The next sitting will take place on June 6.
That's more than two weeks from today - which suggests the FBI experts will be heading back home, having crossed the Atlantic for nothing.
12.48pm Will the FBI experts wait in Malta until that decision has been taken?
The answer to that question remains unclear at this stage. Meanwhile, lawyers are discussing a date for the next sitting.
12.43pm It seems the FBI experts will not be cross examined today.
The magistrate has given defence lawyers five days to state whether or not they want to cross examine the FBI experts during the compilation of evidence.
The court cannot force any party to effect cross examination," the magistrate said.
12.35pm The court is back in session. Decree will be coming up shortly.
12.30pm Another issue that cropped up right at the start of Wednesday's court session: who should comb through Ms Caruana Galizia's popular blog, Running Commentary, to look for threatening messages.
Earlier this year, the court had asked judge Michael Mallia to go through the murdered journalist's WhatsApp messages, to find any threatening messages.
On Wednesday, defence lawyers asked the court if judge Mallia could do the same for Ms Caruana Galizia's blog.
That prompted lawyer Jason Azzopardi to raise an eyebrow. The blog, he noted, ran to thousands of pages and was all public. Couldn't the defence look for any threatening messages itself?
12.20pm It's now been 18 months since the compilation of evidence against the three suspects began.
The court has heard from forensic experts, officers who arrested the suspects, pathologists, Ms Caruana Galizia's husband Peter and son Matthew, and countless other people - from IT experts who analysed data to landlords or garage owners who interacted with the suspects or Ms Caruana Galizia in the weeks leading up to the murder.
Inspector Arnaud had presented the prosecution's case fairly comprehensively in a three-hour testimony right at the start of the case, back in December 2017.
12.08pm We're still waiting for the case to resume.
12pm The legal arguments for and against FBI witnesses testifying got rather heated at one point earlier on.
"We're not summoning a witness from Mellieħa!" inspector Arnaud had exclaimed.
11.55am Some more detail about that testimony concerning Alfred Degiorgio's car rental.
The garage owner said Mr Degiorgio had "definitely" received at least one traffic contravention while leasing the car, and told the court the police had combed his house looking for paperwork related to the lease.
"If we didn't find it, I most likely burnt it, hux!" he said.
11.50am Let's catch up on some of the key events from the first part of the sitting:
- Lawyers are arguing over whether FBI witnesses brought to Malta for today's sitting will actually be heard.
The problem stems from the defence's decision to withdraw a cross-examination request two days ago - prosecutors say that's just a delaying tactic, while the defence says it just wants to ensure defendants have time to consult with their lawyer before that happens
- Alfred Degiorgio leased a car in the months before the assassination, a car rental company owner told the court. He had first leased a larger vehicle and then asked to have a smaller replacement.
There's no chance of documentation, though: the owner of the garage, Paradise and Lionheart, said that he always burnt lease documents "to erase all data and avoid possible bank fraud".
He knows for a fact, though, that the car was back in his possession by October 22, 2017, since he had rented it other people.
- An IT expert told the court that three files concerning a completely unrelated case had mistakenly ended up in the Caruana Galizia murder inquiry file. He was given permission by magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit to remove the files in open court.
11.46am Some major technical trouble meant we weren't able to keep you updated as the first part of this court session happened - apologies for that.
The problems should be resolved now.
11.40am The court session has been suspended while it decides whether or not FBI witnesses will testify today. It should resume in around 10 minutes, we're told.
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