Thirty-three years after being sentenced to death and later pardoned for the brutal murder of her eight-year-old son, Luigia Camilleri, who many still refer to as Ġiġa, insisted she did not kill Twannie. In the only interview she ever gave to the press, the now defunct Church newspaper Il-Ġens, Ġiġa had rhetorically questioned: “How can a mother kill her son?”
Twannie was found gruesomely murdered 50 years ago to the day in his parents’ apartment at 102, St Dominic Street, Valletta. Not long afterwards, holy pictures featuring the young boy wearing his First Holy Communion suit were distributed and some still have copies of them till this very day.
He was killed some time between 5.30 and 6.30 p.m. but he was found partly beheaded at about 7.45 p.m. An autopsy the following day found several wounds, including deep lacerations in his head, probably caused by a deadbolt. These were enough to have killed the eight-year-old child but medical experts concluded he had actually died when he was practically beheaded.
His sister, Carmen, told a jury panel she saw her mother beat Twannie and then bend down next to him wielding a breadknife. That evidence nailed both her mother and step father.
Leli Camilleri, the boy’s stepfather, was jailed for 20 years with hard labour. Ġiġa was given the death sentence but this was lifted two weeks later after her lawyer appealed and a petition was sent to Governor Maurice Dorman. She should have served life but in fact was released from prison within a decade.
The journalists of Il-Ġens who had interviewed Ġiġa noticed an array of photos of Twanny adorned with flowers and a candle as they walked into her apartment. She would also print holy pictures of her son to then distribute.
“For a long time after leaving jail, I lived in only two rooms. I did not even have a table. I had a cardboard tea box which I first used to put a stove on to cook. And then I would remove the stove to use the box as a table on which to eat. I suffered a lot. I used to cry continuously...,” she had told the newspaper.
“My son is a martyr. He is a saint. If you want to be granted some grace, pray for his intercession,” she said.
“If I know who killed my son I am ready to forgive him. If I do not forgive him will I get my son back?”
The murder that shocked the nation
What was a typically warm summer day in August 1960 soon clouded over as news travelled that an eight-year-old boy was found gruesomely murdered in his mother’s apartment shortly after sunset.
Twannie Aquilina was found lying in a pool of blood on a kitchen floor, his raised arms cradling his deeply-lacerated head in a slum in St Dominic Street, Valletta. He had practically been decapitated.
“No murder had ever shocked the country more. The victim was of a young tender age and suffered a most horrible death,” recalls Judge Maurice Caruana Curran in his usual forthright and forceful manner.
The 92-year-old former Deputy Attorney General cannot recall who had informed him about the murder but still vividly remembers the country’s anger at the crime.
“I could sense that the capital had been shaken by the event, with everybody talking about it on street corners and in cafés,” he says, as he mentally sifts through the many cases he was involved in.
The cry for justice was eventually silenced when police investigations yielded results three months after the brutal murder. Luigia and Emmanuel Camilleri, the boy’s 32-year-old mother and 29-year-old stepfather, were charged with murder.
Dozens flocked to sit through the proceedings in court, where 100 witnesses were summoned, including Twannie’s eight-year-old sister Carmen.
Leli and Ġiġa, as they were better known, faced a trial by jury the following year, when Judge Caruana Curran, then still a lawyer at the Attorney General’s Office, had the grave responsibility of making the case of the prosecution. The country wanted that justice would be done and a lot depended on him.
“Being public prosecutor in this trial carried a great responsibility because the death penalty had not yet been abolished and having to place a young child on the witness stand to testify against her mother had troubled me deeply.
“However, it was my duty to extract the truth and I had to carry this out even if the death penalty could have been applied,” he says, firm in his belief in law and order.
Dealing with the realities of the murder, especially on an emotional level, was already a challenge in itself but Judge Caruana Curran also had to share the facts with the jurors.
“It was most painful to have to show the photos of the dead child and describe his gruesome murder to the members of the jury but it was my job as public prosecutor to do my best to extract the truth and show it to all so as to ensure that justice be done,” he says. His hard work soon paid off and Leli and Ġiġa were both found guilty of murder. He was jailed for 20 years with hard labour. Giga was sentenced to death.
Capital punishment spurred her lawyer, John Pullicino, to appeal and others to petition the Governor until she was pardoned two weeks later and instead jailed for life. Ġiġa was released 10 years later.
“As to whether it was right or wrong to waive the ultimate sentence, I can say it was done on humane grounds in consideration of the young age of the victim’s sister but, perhaps, life imprisonment today would ensure that commutation would not be easy as happened in this case,” reflects Judge Caruana Curran.
Notwithstanding, today, half a century later, he takes pride in his success and is still as confident in his approach as he was then.
“If I had to do this case again today, I believe I would still choose to take the same course unless, of course, some new methodology available nowadays could have provided other forensic proof.
“I believe today there would be the same sufficient evidence for the judge and jury to come to the same verdict and, perhaps more, as forensic expertise has improved a lot over the years.”
Judge Caruana Curran went on to become one of the country’s top judges but he still keeps mementos of this case, including newspaper cuttings dating back to then and a paperback about the trial. Tucked between its weathered and fragile pages are messages of admiration from distinguished friends who congratulated him on his success in ensuring justice was done.
Yet, he does not attribute his later success as judge to any particular case, saying it was his passion for justice that spurred him on to ultimately etch his name in legal history in Malta.
“I don’t think this trial or any others had any bearing on my becoming a judge a few years later. I have always loved the law passionately and have always wanted justice to be done. Representing justice was the highest office I could have aspired to,” he says.
• For more information on the murder of Twannie Aquilina, and others too, one can visit the Malta Police Force’s Crime Museum at the Police General Headquarters, Saint Chalcedon Square, Floriana.
Twannie’s short life was anything but happy
Twannie’s short life was far from happy. He was ruthlessly beaten and subdued into housework, even at a time when it was acceptable to beat children to discipline them.
As Leli and Ġiġa Camilleri’s trial progressed, shocking evidence began to emerge of the eight-year-old boy’s mistreatment at home, culminating with an incident which sent shivers down the public’s spines. It was the first time that details of the hell the boy went through became public because the compilation of evidence had been held behind closed doors.
It all began when Twannie confessed to his teacher, Rita Micallef, that he had stolen change from the classroom and from his parents to buy himself a treat. In turn, Ms Micallef advised Ġiġa to keep an eye on him but, meaning well, asked her not to beat the boy.
Nevertheless, when Twannie was confronted by Leli, he called his teacher a liar, prompting his angry stepfather to tie him to a bed, beat him with a stick and burn him with a cigarette. Still in a fit of rage, the man then tied Twannie to a balcony and continued to burn him until he passed out.
The boy was only untied when a neighbour persuaded Leli to stop.
“He would often walk into the classroom with burns and bruises, which he used to try and hide with dressing,” says former schoolmate Marthese Camilleri.
“He never told us what happened nor that he was in pain but we used to realise because he would lower his head all day and we could tell he was not all right,” she recalls.
More than 50-years-later, Ms Camilleri still vividly remembers a conversation she heard between Twannie and their teacher.
“He was the first to walk into class and the teacher called him over. I think she noticed something was wrong. And, from behind the classroom door, we heard him plead with her: ‘No, no, no, do not tell the headmistress, do not tell her!’. But she told him: ‘No, I have to because otherwise they will think that we did that’. I think she realised that they had beaten him.” His abuse was evidently not only physical and Ms Camilleri recalls instances when the lunch he brought with him from home told a tale.
“He would sometimes have mouldy bread, which everyone used to notice. When it happened the first time, the teacher asked him why he was not going to eat and when he did not answer she went to see if he had any lunch at all in his school bag.
“When she found the mouldy bread she told him: ‘No, you are not going to eat this’ and then everyone gave him a piece of their own bread.”
Notwithstanding the brutal way in which he was treated at home, Twannie was never cruel himself.
“He was an immensely quiet boy. You had to talk to him for him to speak but he had a very sweet character and when he laughed, he laughed a lot. Everyone liked him. But he was very quiet. When we played during the break he would stay alone in a corner.
“He also did not talk about home. Whenever we asked him to come and play after school he always said he had things to do at home because he had to clean up. He even used to hang the laundry.”
And Twannie did well at school. Ms Camilleri recalls him always turning up with his completed homework. When their teacher asked him a question, he would give the correct answer.
She also distinctly remembers him playing the part of a godfather during a religion lesson, when their teacher was explaining the baptism rites to them, using a dummy as a baby.
The existing photos of Twannie are in black and white. So how would Ms Camilleri describe him?
“He had dark brown curly hair with a parting in the middle and his complexion was not dark nor what we call fair but slightly tanned. He was thin and not very tall.”
She admits that at the time she did not realise the full extent of Twannie’s troubles at home. She only added things up when she heard that Ġiġa had killed her son.
“We put one and one together and told each other: ‘Then that is why he was like that’. In fact, they then summoned our teacher to testify in court.
“I was young and we heard from the people in the street about the murder. As such, I only knew him at school. I found out exactly where he lived after the case because I had not taken any notice before. I mean, I knew he lived in the capital city, somewhere behind the school. But we had not gone to the house and we were not that close.”
Chronicles of a gruesome murder
“On Tuesday, August 23 at 7.45 p.m. an eight-year-old boy, Anthony Aquilina was found dead at his residence in St Dominic Street, Valletta, in circumstances indicating that he died as a result of wilful violence committed with an irregular weapon by some person unknown.
“The Duty Magistrate was informed and is holding an inquest. Police are investigating to trace the person responsible and anyone who can help the police in their inquiries are being actively pursued.
“Any person having information to give is asked to communicate with the Duty Inspector CID, at Police Headquarters, Floriana.”
Thus, in a statement issued by the police through the Department of Information, the country got to know of the violent death of a young Valletta boy. It became the subject of every conversation and, as details began to emerge, it led to widespread rage and horror at the atrocity committed.
Twannie was murdered between 5.30 and 6.30 p.m. and found partially beheaded at about 7.45 p.m. by Police Constable Carmelo Attard.
PC Attard was on duty in Strait Street when he was informed by a panic-stricken Joseph Schembri that Leli’s son had died in a fall at about 7.40 p.m. The officer rushed to St Dominic Street, drawing curious residents to the scene.
A bloodstained bread knife found in a kitchen drawer shortly after the discovery of the boy quickly shot down Mr Schembri’s report that Twannie had died in a fall.
The primary suspects were the victim’s mother Ġiġa and his stepfather Leli, a leading marine engineer at HMS St Angelo.
Twannie had a sister, Carmen, both of whom were illegitimate. Apart from them, Ġiġa had another daughter, Marthese, from Leli.
Brought before Superintendent Edward Attard, head of the Criminal Investigation Department, both Ġiġa and Leli denied any responsibility.
Asked to give a statement, Leli said he was out at the time on an errand to buy some stationery and Ġiġa recounted she was at a place known as Il-Fossa, not far from her house, with her daughters, eating and playing tombola.
This is what Leli told the police as how he came to know that Twannie had been murdered: “I heard shouting and saw people running towards Old Bakery Street. I ran after them and saw my wife shouting: ‘The boy was full of blood’. I therefore ran to the building, where I saw my daughter crying at the door. I continued to the apartment, saw the kitchen door ajar, went in through that door and found the boy on the floor behind the door, in a pool of blood. I touched him on his back to see whether he was still alive and, as I moved his head, it came off and I realised that his neck was cut.”
Ġiġa, on the other hand said: “When Twannie did not turn up, I sent Carmen to tell him to eat a couple of prickly pears. But the girl came back and told me that, although the lights were on in the apartment, he did not reply. I told her he may have fallen asleep and sent her and another girl, Mary, to check whether he was sleeping. But they turned back and Mary told me that someone had told Carmen there was blood in the building. I therefore decided to go with them and see what happened. I climbed the stairs to see if there really was blood. When I arrived upstairs I saw light through a crack in the kitchen door. I pushed the door slightly open and saw Twannie full of blood. As soon as I saw this, I ran downstairs and started shouting: ‘Look what happened to me’ and as I went out of St Dominic Street and turned towards Old Bakery Street and arrived next to the hairdresser, I saw Leli running. When he arrived next to me he asked me what happened and I told him: ‘My son is finished, he’s soaked in blood’.”
They more or less repeated their statements the following day, when they were once again interrogated and it was not until November 1, when Scotland Yard had been roped in and forensic evidence began piling up against them, that they gave their third statements before being formally arrested.
They were arraigned the following day and, despite a ban being issued on the publication of the proceedings, the public was in uproar over the murder, with the prison van carrying the accused having to be escorted by the police to court and back.
The gory details began to emerge publicly when the ban on the publication of evidence was lifted at the start of the trial on February 25, 1961.
When the court-appointed medical doctors testified, the people were shocked to learn that Twannie had first been fatally beaten with a deadbolt. However, it was not the three deep lacerations in his skull that led to his death but the partial beheading. In fact, the medical experts confirmed he was still alive, albeit possibly unconscious, when his neck was slit. This, they explained, was confirmed by the fact that the heart had emptied its chambers, clearly indicating that there was a pulse when his head was being cut off.
Trace evidence experts came up with more shocking news when they said handprints in blood and puddles of blood where found along the slum’s stairway leading to Ġiġa’s apartment, together with pieces of brain.
Although no one had actually seen the murder in progress, witnesses soon began to piece things together. Eight-year-old Carmen Cauchi, a neighbour, said she had heard someone crying and shouting in the slum’s common area before she sneaked out of her apartment to see what was going on. She said she saw Twannie fall down a couple of steps before her mother rushed out with her young sister Mary and they left the building, stepping over Twannie’s body on their way out. Her mother, Dolor, a controversial witness who was remanded in custody for changing the testimony given during the compilation of evidence, denied she was present and said the children must have left alone.
Fourteen-year-old Alfred Fitzpatrick recounted that he was returning from Il-Fossa to his apartment to eat when he spotted Ġiġa lifting a motionless Twannie from the stairs and carrying him to her apartment. He said he was climbing the stairs to his apartment when he heard a faint moan and two or more people running. He also heard the sound of a metal object hitting the ground.
Freddy, as the witness was known, said he returned soon after and waited outside Ġiġa’s apartment, expecting to hear Twannie moaning again and Ġiġa trying to fetch a doctor. When he did not see anything, he returned to Il-Fossa.
At about sunset, Freddy said he returned and, on his way up, noticed that Ġiġa’s kitchen door was ajar. Overcome by curiosity, he stepped inside, where he found Twannie lying on the floor. He knelt down next to him, touched him and called out to him but, when the boy did not reply, Freddy washed his hands and left the apartment. Outside, he found a policeman knocking on the door of an apartment belonging to a Tumas Azzopardi. The officer asked Freddy if anyone was home. He told him no one was in if no one answered and then continued to his apartment.
The witness who actually filled some of the gaps left in the evidence given throughout the trial was Twannie’s eight-year-old sister Carmen.
Sitting beneath the Bench, she said Twannie was washing the floor when he took his father’s tools to repair his shoes. When he had done so, his mother realised what had happened and, scolding him, snatched the tools away.
Overcome by anger, Ġiġa beat Twannie with a leather strap. The boy tried to run out of the apartment but Ġiġa caught up as Twannie called out to his sister: “Carmen, Carmen.” Shortly after, Carmen saw Ġiġa walking back inside, carrying Twannie, whom she laid on the bed.
She said she was then asked to fetch Leli from a friend’s garage and, when he arrived and asked what had happened, Ġiġa told him she had found Twannie dead.
Carmen said Leli moved Twannie off the bed and lay him down on the floor as Ġiġa drew a bread knife from a drawer and knelt down next to the boy.
Despite having been sent to Il-Fossa to wait for her mother, Carmen said she saw her parents changing their clothes and putting those they had just taken off in the washing machine, together with a bedspread.
Leli and Ġiġa also testified during the trial. He was calm and composed but she often broke down and was unable to answer the prosecutor’s questions.
Eventually, Leli and Ġiġa were both found guilty of murder. He was jailed for 20 years with hard labour and she was sentenced to death. Ġiġa’s lawyer appealed and petitions were made to the Governor to spare her life. In fact, the death sentence was lifted two weeks later and she was instead jailed for life. Ten years later walked out of prison a free woman.