A ‘get-out-of-jail’ card for cowboy developers

Once again, Malta’s cowboy contractors have been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. And there is nothing ‘just’, or ‘fair’, about that

There can be no doubt that the lenient sentence handed down to two architects – found guilty of causing the death of Miriam Pace on 2 March 2020 – was a slap in the face of those who expected justice from this case.

Pace, a 54-year-old mother of two, was buried under the rubble of her own Santa Venera home: which collapsed due to excavation works carried out next door. The architects responsible for that development – 37-year-old architect Roderick Camilleri of Rabat, and Perit Anthony Mangion of Gżira, 73 – were both charged with negligently causing Pace’s death in 2020.

Under Maltese law, involuntary homicide carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for not more than four years. Yet in his 98-page judgment on the case, Magistrate Joe Mifsud – despite finding both defendants guilty of involuntary homicide, and even observing that they had “betrayed their oath of appointment as architects” – chose to forgo prison altogether, in favour of community service.

Camilleri was sentenced to 480 hours of community service and a €10,000 fine, while Mangion was sentenced to 400 hours of community service and an €8,000 fine.

Considering that the Maltese law-courts routinely hand down far more severe punishments, even for relatively far less serious crimes, one can only question the reasoning that led to such a paltry sentence in this particular case: more so when the magistrate himself outlined the severity of the crime in the same ruling.

Among other things, Mifsud noted that – apart from Miriam Pace herself, and her family – Maltese society as a whole also had to be numbered among the victims.

It is a point that this newspaper had also raised editorially at the time: the house that collapsed in Santa Venera last year, did not only kill the unfortunate occupant who was in it at the time. It also shattered the peace of mind of everyone living in close proximity to construction and development; whilst also exacerbating the feeling of helplessness that ordinary people have when confronted by the sheer power of Malta’s well-connected construction lobby.

Remarkably, the magistrate himself even used the word ‘cowboys’ – in the purely Maltese sense, denoting a combination of irresponsibility, impunity and lack of consideration for others – to describe the more lawless aspects of this industry.

And yet, when it came to meting out justice in a case where precisely such ‘cowboy’ antics cost the life of a human being… the same magistrate opted for a sentence that would be considered lenient, even when applied to such minor offences as vandalism or juvenile delinquency.

Clearly, something is wrong with this judgment. How can the magistrate, on one hand, correctly note that ‘people are living in anxiety and fear, every time they see a crane [..] in their street’… and yet, on the other, fail to take those people into consideration, when handing down a sentence that will only encourage more ‘cowboy-like’ behaviour in future?

It is primarily for this reason – and not, as suggested elsewhere, out of a desire for ‘vendetta’ – that so many people were irked, angered or disappointed by the verdict. Once again, a court ruling has sent out the wrong message to bullish contractors and developers: whose actions, in this case, have resulted in involuntary manslaughter of people going about their daily lives.

Their outrage is entirely justifiable, too. For without proper punitive measures for those whose cavalier actions cause death and destruction, there can be no real justice for all Maltese people who – not unreasonably - live in fear of becoming the next victim of a construction site incident.

And in fact, the responsibility of the Court was precisely towards Maltese and Gozitan citizens who expected justice from this case; and not – as the same magistrate suggested – some wan attempt of ‘bringing Miriam Pace back [from the dead]’.

Nor is it particularly relevant, that the Pace family themselves approve the sentence. The Pace family had in fact already reached an out-of-court settlement on civil proceedings. But as the expression itself denotes: it was an ‘out-of-court’ agreement… i.e., over and above the remit of judicial proceedings.

As such, this settlement should have had no bearing whatsoever on either the verdict, or – even less – the sentence. Nor, for that matter, should the fact that the Pace family publicly stated that it was ‘not out for anyone’s pound of flesh’.

Irrespective of the Pace family’s position in the matter – which should, naturally, be respected; and to which they are fully entitled - a criminal case’s sentence should never be determined by the victim’s relatives.

Moreover, for many citizens, Miriam Pace was also the victim of deregulation of the construction industry: an issue that compromises their own safety, and their own state of mind.

As such, their desire was not for “vendetta”, either: only for justice. In this case, however, justice was certainly not done: neither with Miriam Pace, nor with society as a whole.

Once again, Malta’s cowboy contractors have been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. And there is nothing ‘just’, or ‘fair’, about that.