Yes, people need protection... and no, they’re not getting it

Faced with a seemingly endless series of questionable, even bizarre bail decisions, people are perfectly justified in feeling that the Maltese criminal justice system has, on the whole, let them down rather badly

Magistrate Joe Mifsud
Magistrate Joe Mifsud

To say that ‘I don’t often agree with Magistrate Joe Mifsud’ would probably be the understatement of the century. And the example I am about to give isn’t even much of an exception, really: for though I do sympathise with his reasons for denying bail to a suspected drug-trafficker this week… I cannot accept his core argument that: “it is in the common interest that the courts give direction in a society which has lost many of its strong human values.”

Last I looked, the job of the law courts was actually to administer justice in the country… not to mould society according to the ‘strong, human [and totally subjective] values’ of one individual magistrate.

Besides: in this particular instance, the individual magistrate’s job was really just to decide on a request for bail by the defence counsel: not to lecture us all about matters that have nothing to do with the actual case at hand (still less, his own private interpretation of the moral and civic responsibilities of the Maltese criminal justice system).

But… well, these are all points I have made before; so in the interests of moving along quickly, let’s just pretend that there isn’t any issue regarding a certain magistrate who never misses an opportunity to regale us with his own, Jerry Springer-style ‘Thoughts of the Day’ -  and instead, turn directly to the substance of Magistrate Mifsud’s latest tirade.

Bail.

Yes, on this occasion I’ll concede that – regardless whether it was his place to actually make it, in that particular context – he does have a point.

There is undeniably a perception out there that the law-courts have “placed too much emphasis on the rights of the accused… not giving enough attention to the needs of those living in our society who also need the protection of the courts.”

And in the light of recent events, this seems particularly true about the decision to grant or deny bail, in cases involving violent crime.

I suspect it is hardly a coincidence that Mifsud’s statement came two weeks after the double murder of Christian Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejowski in Sliema: and especially after it emerged that one of the arrested suspects had been granted bail three years earlier, despite facing charges for aggravated armed robbery, and – even more shockingly – the attempted murder of a policeman.

Given that bail has so often been denied in the past, even for relatively minor offences (more of which later), this is the sort of revelation that can only seriously undermine the credibility of the legal system as a whole.

Even I – who never knew or met the victims, and had no reason to feel any kind of personal connection to the crime – found myself shocked and outraged to discover that at least one of the murderers should have been safely behind bars at the time… and would have been, had the law courts also based their earlier decision on the need to protect society from criminals.

And that’s just one case out of several: as has already been widely reported, Vincent ‘il-Kohhu’ Muscat – one of the triggermen charged with murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 – had previously been arrested in connection with the Qormi HSBC heist of 2010: during which some 60 rounds of bullets had been fired in the direction of the police.

In what almost feels like an uncanny premonition of the Sliema murder 10 years later, Muscat also stood accused of the attempted murder of two police officers, on top of aggravated armed robbery. Nonetheless, he was provisionally released against a deposit of €5,000, and a personal guarantee of €15,000.

In this case, however, there was an ominous twist. Some four years after the Qormi hold-up, the same Vincent Muscat was himself the victim an attempted murder: when he somehow survived being shot three times in the head at close range, while parking his car in Msida.

And what do you know? The man who was later charged with this crime (Jonathan Pace, of Tyson Butcher fame, who went on to be killed in an as-yet unsolved shooting at his Fgura home) was also granted bail: this time against a personal deposit of just €1,000…

I could go on, of course: for there is no shortage of other examples, where people have been granted bail even for the most serious crimes imaginable…  sometimes, only to commit even more serious crimes during their provisional liberty – but I reckon the point has been made.

Faced with a seemingly endless series of bail decisions that are, at best, questionable – and at worst, downright bizarre – people are perfectly justified in feeling that the Maltese criminal justice system has, on the whole, let them down rather badly.

For this is another point we can score up for Joe Mifsud: he is right to argue that the justice system also exists to guarantee a degree of safety within our communities. And it is just slightly difficult to feel entirely safe in your own home, when hardly a day passes by (or so it seems, anyway) without news that yet another potentially dangerous criminal has been prematurely released from custody, with scant regard for all the possible consequences.

Meanwhile, there are other discernible problems with the entire legal infrastructure surrounding bail: it is not just a matter of whether the law-courts should, or should not, grant provisional liberty in any given case; there is also the question of how, and on what criteria, bail conditions are actually set.

Consider, for instance, the following two excerpts from recent court reports:

In the first case – dated 2 June  – “a man who stands accused of having sex with a minor, trafficking cocaine, heroin and cannabis, and being in possession of a firearm and ammunition […] has been released on bail against a deposit of €10,000 and a personal guarantee of €10,000. He was ordered to sign a bail book daily and observe a curfew.”

The second report was published at the time of writing [Friday], and concerns Serge Morel-Jean, a 73-year-old retired travel agent from France, who was charged this week with ‘causing wilful damage to government property’ by spray-painting red arrows all over Majjistral Park.

On this occasion, bail was likewise granted “against a deposit of €10,000 and a personal guarantee of €10,000. However, Morel-Jean said it was impossible for him to come up with the sum at this time, so he was remanded in custody”.

And this, I suppose, is as good as any other example of a bail decision that is ‘downright bizarre’. For starters: not to minimise the charges against Serge Morel-Jean, or anything – for I was just as unimpressed an everyone else by the sheer ugliness of his handiwork – but… a deposit of €10,000? For spray-painting a bunch of red arrows on a few stones?

I mean, come on. A wee bit over the top, wouldn’t you say?

Besides, I would be curious to know how a man charged with causing damage ‘in excess of €2,500’ would end up a facing the exact same bail conditions as someone else accused of such evidently more serious crimes as drug-trafficking, firearm possession, and statutory rape.

Not only that; but the price of provisional liberty set for Serge Morel-Jean was actually double the amount set for Vince Muscat in 2010… not to mention 10 times more than for Jonathan Pace in 2014… despite the fact that both Muscat and Pace were on trial for much, MUCH more serious crimes than mere vandalism.

Just like the crimes themselves, discrepancies such as these also undermine public faith in the justice system. And the same two cases I cited above – though not comparable in any other way – also seem to illustrate exactly why, too.

For let’s face it: who is likelier to be able to afford a court deposit of €10,000 in the first place? A career criminal, who is perfectly capable of theft, violence and possibly murder? Or a 73-year old retired travel agent, whose crime is actually just a minor misdemeanour… and who, in any case, very clearly poses no real threat whatsoever to anyone’s life and safety?

Effectively, then, the court’s decision to set bail so high in both cases – which is already questionable in itself, given the sheer discrepancy in offences – can be seen to pose a threat of its own: for what has it achieved in practice… if not the fact that the more potentially dangerous of the two suspects was granted provisional liberty, while the manifestly less threatening one ended up behind bars?

I hate to say it, but from this perspective, the entire bail system itself seems geared towards benefiting the more dangerous, violent type of criminal, at the expense of public safety.

And something tells me it will take more than just a typical Joe Mifsud ‘Jerry Springer moment’ to undo the damage… something like, for instance, a thorough (and long overdue) reform of the entire legal system governing bail in this country, from top to bottom.

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