Two teens charged over a shooting at Qrendi should be discharged because the evidence against them falls short of the proof needed to place them under a bill of indictment, their lawyers have argued.

Leon Debono and Owen Schembri, both 18-deny murdering Saviour Gaffarena and attempting to murder his cousin, Vincent.

In a lengthy hearing marking the start of the compilation of evidence against them, their legal teams argued that the evidence put forward by the prosecution fell short of the necessary degree of probability.

“As far as Owen Schembri is concerned, we are light years away from the level of proof needed. So why should he face further trial? That is why we insist on a discharge,” argued lawyer Arthur Azzopardi. 

Lawyer Stephen Tonna Lowell, assisting Debono, noted that not all proof was admissible. This included all hearsay evidence and the statement of the co-accused. 

Murder accused Owen Schembri (left) with Vince Gaffarena, who was injured in the attack. Photo: FacebookMurder accused Owen Schembri (left) with Vince Gaffarena, who was injured in the attack. Photo: Facebook

The sole eye-witness, namely the survivor of the alleged shooting, had not yet testified to confirm the evidence put forward so far, lawyer Giannella DeMarco, also assisting Debono, argued, insisting that he should be discharged too. 

The decision now rests with magistrate Nadine Lia.

Prosecuting Inspector Kurt Zahra took the stand first, explaining how on July 29, towards midnight, he was told about the suspect shooting.

Within minutes he was at Triq il-Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija in Mqabba, where he came across a silver Renault Megane, the left side of its mudguard badly smashed.

Leaning against the car was a wounded man, talking to the police and a medical team. 

Another man was lying on the ground next to the vehicle, surrounded by paramedics who were administering CPR. The man was unresponsive and was pronounced dead shortly after. 

A glimpse inside the car revealed blood and human tissue on the back seat behind the driver’s seat. The dead man had gunshot wounds on the front and back of his head.

Another police officer, channelling traffic and crowds from the nearby fireworks festival that evening, told the court how he had been standing near a barrier when the Renault drove up, its driver sounding the horn.

“Yes?” the constable had asked, approaching the vehicle, thinking that its driver was about to report some hit and run incident. 

“They shot me,” the driver replied, as the policeman rushed to fetch medical assistance from a nearby Red Cross team.

Owen Schembri, centre, is one of two teenagers accused of murdering Saviour Gafferena and injuring Vince Gafferena. Photo: Jonathan BorgOwen Schembri, centre, is one of two teenagers accused of murdering Saviour Gafferena and injuring Vince Gafferena. Photo: Jonathan Borg

It was later that the officer realised that there was another wounded man leaning against the back door of the vehicle. 

A female officer on extra duty as traffic point on site also moved in to assist, approaching the driver whose face and chest were blood-smeared. 

As he indicated his wish to communicate, she handed over a pen and scrap of paper on which the victim scribbled two names, “Leon Debono and Owen Schembri, Kirkop”.

Those names put investigators on the trail of the suspect murderers who were arrested hours later.

According to Vincent Gaffarena, who spoke to the police from his hospital bed the following morning, at the time of the shooting he had been driving the three-door Renault in the limits of Ħal Millieri, alongside Leon Debono while his cousin Saviour and Schembri sat at the back. 

The scene of the shooting in a rural road in the outskirts of Qrendi. Photo: Mark Zammit CordinaThe scene of the shooting in a rural road in the outskirts of Qrendi. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

An argument broke out, the victim could not recall about what, and Debono allegedly aimed a gun at Vincent’s face and chest. 

The driver rushed out of the vehicle, running for safety as shots rang out. The shooting continued for a while.

When all was silent again, he approached the car, finding his cousin slouched on the back seat, wounded.

The suspect aggressors subsequently denied involvement in the shooting, saying that Vincent Gaffarena had threatened them with a knife, while telling them they had bothered him.

That same night, investigators also tracked down and arrested another teen, a 17-year-old friend of both accused, who had been spotted acting somewhat suspiciously in the fields nearby. 

The minor also testified on Thursday, recalling how that night, after hearing about the shooting through online news sites, he had recognised the victim’s car. 

He had tried calling Schembri several times on Messenger, finally messaging him “Goodnight” when he failed to get through. 

Soon after, his friend had called him back, asking him to go over to his family home at Kirkop. 

Putting on some dark clothes and a bandana to prevent being recognised, he set off, jogging to his destination. 

His knock was answered by Schembri’s grandma who was there with the rest of the family, apparently all somewhat upset. Leon Debono was there too. 

Going into Schembri’s bedroom, the witness had spotted a firearm on the bed, a black weapon.

He had seen that pistol on two earlier occasions when he had been out and about with Debono and Schembri, in the limits of Żurrieq, and the two had taken turns at testing it by firing at rocks. 

That night not much was said, the youth said, recalling that the two friends had simply told him that, “there had been a shooting”.

Debono had left the house for a while, taking the weapon with him and soon returned empty-handed, saying he had dumped the pistol in some neighbour’s front yard. He had then allegedly asked the witness whether he could remove the weapon. 

The witness told the court he took that as an opportunity to leave. He said he spotted the firearm in a front yard, dumped the four bullets in a water-filled tank, placed the magazine under a rock and then dumped the weapon in a prickly pear bush. 

“I did that because it had been left in a public place. So that neighbours would not find it,” he explained. 

“Why didn’t you take it to the police?” asked parte civile lawyer James D’Agostino.

“It didn’t cross my mind at the time,” he replied.

Inspectors Keith Arnaud and Kurt Zahra prosecuted. Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Alfred Abela and Rene Darmanin assisted Schembri.  Lawyers Giannella DeMarco and Stephen Tonna Lowell assisted Debono. Lawyer Mark Refalo also appeared parte civile. 

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