An injustice in slow motion

All we are left with now is a dead man, a family unable to find closure, and no justice. The acquittal was the final act in an injustice that has been unfolding in slow motion over the years

Albert Rosso went missing in 2005. Police subsequently charged two men – a business associate of his and a boat captain – with his murder. 

The police believe Rosso was murdered with a firearm in the garage of the business associate and his body dumped out at sea, never to be recovered. 

Last week, the two men accused with Rosso’s murder – Anthony Bugeja and Piero Di Bartolo – were acquitted by a jury on all counts. 

Crucially, statements given by the accused to the police more than a decade ago in which they admitted murdering Rosso had been expunged from the records of the case after a successful challenge by the defence. 

In fact, last year, the Appeals Court upheld a ruling of the Criminal Court, which said that statements taken without the two men having had access to legal assistance could result in irremediable prejudice for the accused. 

It has to be noted that at the time of Rosso’s murder, suspects under Maltese law had no right to legal assistance in the pre-arraignment stage, both before and during, police interrogation. 

But the court had also noted that both suspects were not cautioned when releasing their statements to the police. This led the court to order the expungement of the statements from the case. 

In simple words, the State not only failed to provide the legal safeguards for suspects, but even in the particular circumstances of this case, the statements were also taken unlawfully. 

Thus, when the jury got underway, almost 18 years after Rosso vanished forever, jurors could not take into consideration the statements given by the accused. Evidently, the jurors felt that the evidence put forward by the prosecution was not enough to find the accused guilty. 

Today we interview Danny Rosso, brother to the murdered man, who describes the outcome of his brother’s case as a big injustice. 

Danny remarks on the length of time it took for the case to reach jury stage, saying this contributed to the injustice. 

He is right. It is incomprehensible how a murder that happened in 2005 for which two suspects were in police custody shortly afterwards should drag on for almost 18 years. 

Had the case gone to trial years earlier, the outcome could have possibly been different. 

Since then, the law was amended to include new rights for suspects thus changing the rules of the game. 

All we are left with now is a dead man, a family unable to find closure, and no justice. The acquittal was the final act in an injustice that has been unfolding in slow motion over the years. 

This is not the first case that has been scuttled because the main piece of evidence was the statement of the accused at a time when the right to have a lawyer present did not exist. And neither will it be the last. 

It is a predicament that lawyer Franco Debono had warned about in parliament back in 2009 when he took his own government to task for failing to implement the law that granted suspects the right to have a lawyer present during interrogations. 

Then a rebellious Nationalist MP, Debono had pressured the Gonzi administration to bring Malta on par with other western jurisdictions and introduce the right to legal assistance during interrogation that had already been envisaged at law but never implemented. 

The PN administration eventually yielded to Debono’s pressure and in 2010 changed the law. But it was a half-hearted attempt that only allowed the suspect a maximum one hour of consultation with their lawyer prior to interrogation. 

Debono’s subsequent pleas to include legal assistance both prior and during a suspect’s interrogation fell on deaf ears.  

It was only in 2016 under a Labour administration that the right to be assisted by a lawyer during interrogation was fully implemented. 

Debono, who was part of the defence in the Rosso case, went on to use the State’s failure to his clients’ advantage over the years. Really and truly he was just doing his job as a lawyer. Other lawyers did the same. 

The onus here is on the State and its failure in the past to introduce the right to legal assistance in a meaningful way. The consequences of this lethargy continue to be felt today and unfortunately it is the victims of crime and their relatives who pay the price. 

But another point to ponder is the need to have thorough police investigations that leave no stone unturned. The police have to establish the facts and uncover evidence that helps them achieve a conviction in court. Resting on the accused’s statement, even if now obtained in a lawful way in the presence of a lawyer, should not be enough. 

Police investigations have improved since 2005. There is a growing emphasis today on intelligence gathering and analysis that enables the police to delve deeper. After the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, the police gained better insight on how to use mobile phone location data through triangulation. We have seen quite a few crimes, including major ones, lately that have been solved satisfactorily and people charged within hours or days with strong evidence being presented at compilation of evidence stage. 

This does not mean that everything about the police is perfect. One area where the force requires more highly-skilled resources is financial crime, where investigations are very complex and specialised in nature. 

Victims of crime and their relatives expect nothing less than a police force committed to solve a crime and see that the people indicted get what they deserve. 

This leader hopes that lessons can be learnt from the Rosso case even though we say this in full knowledge that these words are of no consolation whatever to Rosso’s hurt relatives.