The compilation of evidence against the three accused men will resume on February 1. But they must be released on bail within 20 months unless convicted. Matthew Xuereb spoke to Stefano Filletti, head of the university’s Department of Criminal Law, for an explanation of the next steps in the case.
The criminal case against the three men accused of killing journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia began on December 5, when they were arraigned in court under heavy police presence.
Vince Muscat, 55, known as il-Koħħu, was arraigned along with Alfred Degiorgio, 52, il-Fulu, and his older brother George Degiorgio, 54, known as iċ-Ċiniz.
So far they stand charged with murder, conspiracy to commit a crime, forming part of a criminal gang, using explosives to kill, being in possession of explosives and relapsing.
All three pleaded not guilty and were remanded in custody. Their financial assets were frozen by the court.
The case had immediately hit a snag when the first two magistrates who were assigned to preside over the case recused themselves in turn, citing conflicts of interest which could be seen as impinging upon the right to fair and impartial hearing.
Once this issue was finally resolved, the case was taken up by Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit, who was required to give a preliminary ruling on what is known in law as the prima facie – ‘at first glance’ – evidence.
According to Dr Filletti, this is simply whether the presiding magistrate sees the possibility of guilt being pronounced without going into the merits of the case. “The magistrate must rule if there is sufficient evidence to issue a bill of indictment. If there is one shred of evidence that points to guilt and 10 which point to an acquittal, the magistrate must rule in favour of the bill of indictment,” he explained.
Magistrate Stafrace Zammit ruled there was sufficient evidence for a bill of indictment to be issued against the three men.
Attorney General's options
At this stage, the acts of the case would have been sent to the Attorney General, who had to issue the bill of indictment. These contain the formal charges being brought against the persons accused of the crimes.
Technically, the AG now has the option to send the case straight to a trial by jury, in which the evidence would be heard by a panel of jurors. However, in most cases the AG sends the acts back to the magistrate, requesting the latter to listen to more evidence.
The three men could be roaming the streets by late next year
“When the AG remits the case back to the court he includes a list of witnesses to be heard or evidence to be collected. At this stage the AG is building a case. He would need to evaluate it in the light of the evidence at hand, formalise the charges and then try and secure a conviction. The AG would want to collect as much information and evidence as possible, especially that which is crucial to the case,” Dr Filletti said.
It is in fact during this stage of the proceedings that the formal charges against the accused are “crystallised”.
Dr Filletti explained that depending on the nature of the crime or crimes, the AG normally decides to prosecute at the end of the compilation of evidence. He also has the power to decide if a case is heard by a magistrate or in a trial by jury, and this, to a certain extent, influences the punishment.
“The AG could issue a bill of indictment, and the case would be heard by the criminal courts [presided over by a judge], where the maximum is life imprisonment. Or he could decide to go before the courts of magistrates as courts of criminal judicature, presided over by a magistrate, where the maximum punishment is 12 years imprisonment.”
During the compilation of evidence stage that is coming up in the murder case, the acts of the case will go to and fro between the magistrate and the AG’s office, with six-week intervals.
Will suspects be freed?
The law does not say how many six-week intervals are permissible, so the public could be in for a long wait to see the case go to trial. But after 20 months, the AG will no longer be able to object to the three men being granted bail.
According to the law, any person accused of a crime which carries at least a nine-year jail term cannot remain in custody for more than 20 months.
That means Mr Muscat and Messrs Degiorgio could be roaming the streets by late next year if the compilation of evidence and trial by jury are not concluded within 20 months and their convictions secured.
“This is the only clock running against the AG,” said Dr Filletti: after 20 months, bail will be granted automatically.
Once the compilation of evidence stage is completed and provided the case is sent to the Criminal Court, it will be placed in the list of pending trials awaiting an appointment for hearing.
It will be many months, possibly years, before justice is done regarding the three men accused of assassinating the journalist using a car bomb in Bidnija on October 16.
London vigil for journalist
A vigil to celebrate Daphne Caruana Galizia’s courage will be held in front of the Malta High Commission in London on Tuesday, three months to the day after she was killed by a car bomb.
The event, organised by Reporters Without Borders, will see a group of free expression and anti-corruption NGOs gather in London for a vigil to mark the three months since the murder.
“Her murder highlights the extensive risks faced by journalists around the world and the need to end the vicious cycle of violence against journalists and impunity for their attackers,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement announcing the event.