Ex-minister's driver convicted over 2014 shooting

Paul Sheehan, ex-driver to former minister Manuel Mallia, handed suspended sentence over 2014 shooting

Paul Sheehan (front) leaving court in a previous sitting
Paul Sheehan (front) leaving court in a previous sitting

Former police officer and ministerial driver, Paul Sheehan, has been found guilty of shooting at a car which had clipped his wing mirror in 2014, and handed a suspended sentence.

Sheehan, 46, who had been the driver for then home affairs minister Manuel Mallia, was handed a sentence of 22 months in prison, suspended for three years by magistrate Rachel Montebello in a sentence that was handed down last week.

Sheehan had originally been accused of the attempted murder of motorist Stephen Smith, who had clipped the parked ministerial BMW Sheehan had been in charge of, on 19 November 2014.

he off-duty policeman had pulled out his sidearm and fired shots into the retreating vehicle. Claims of having fired warning shots into the air were disproved by bullet holes in Smith’s car.

Allegations of a police cover-up and the ensuing scandal had led to Mallia’s resignation.

In her judgment, magistrate Rachel Montebello observed that the majority of the evidence dealt with the fact that the cars had been moved before investigators had arrived on the scene. Although this may have prejudiced the preservation of the scene of the crime, it had happened after the shooting had occurred and was of “little to no use” in determining guilt in this case.

“In any case,” said the court, “it is easily determinable that…it had been the Acting Commissioner who had given the order” to move Smith’s car and take it to the police garage. This emerged “unequivocally” from a transcript of a phonecall between the police officer on the ground and Acting Commissioner Raymond Zammit.

In its reconstruction of the events leading to the shooting, the court said that after the impact, Sheehan had got inside the ministerial BMW and chased after Smith, stopping next to Smith’s car in Kappara Valley road, Gzira. An argument ensued and was testified about by several eyewitnesses.

Smith had told the court that “it was at that point that I just heard shouting and a lot of aggression as I was getting out of the car and then I could see a man, heading towards me shouting and really, really in a fit of rage and he was holding a gun, it was at this point where I genuinely feared for my life and decided to leave the scene. … I was convinced that he was going to shoot at me.”

He quickly got into his car and drove off and heard two shots. Some distance down the road, his car shuddered to a halt.

The eyewitnesses reported seeing an angry man shouting down his mobile phone, with a handgun in his other hand.

The court, having seen recordings of the incident taken on mobile phones and recording of the calls made by Sheehan disagreed with the reports provided by the court-appointed experts and distanced itself from their findings. Magistrate Montebello said that the two shots had been fired at the vehicle in quick succession as soon as it had passed in front of Sheehan and not as it was 30 to 40 metres away.

The court said that the evidence had established that there was a much shorter distance between the accused and Smith’s vehicle. It was also “obvious” that Smith’s car had not turned any corners at the time of the shooting. It was clear to the court that the experts had not taken into account the shooter’s changing position when calculating the bullet trajectories.

Sheehan’s defence had argued that Smith had been drunk and had been a danger to other drivers and himself, but the court said that the force used was excessive in the circumstances. Police officers do not have a special status or special powers at law regarding the use of firearms, said the court, and are expected to use them proportionately to the threat encountered. “For the rest, he must answer to the criminal law like anyone else, including the defence of legitimate self defence.”

The accused had argued that Smith had attacked him with a beer bottle, but the court was not convinced that Smith had any object in his hands during the argument or when the accused was pointing the firearm at him. It did not emerge from eyewitness evidence, that Smith had attacked Sheehan at all said the court. The beer bottle was found, partially full, in the car’s console cup holder.

The court said there was “not a shred of evidence” to show that the shots were fired in self-defence or out of necessity.

The Attorney General had later withdrawn the charge of attempted homicide, noted the court.

Conducting a scholarly review of the doctrines and legal dispositions regarding attempted homicide and self-defence, the court said that it had concluded that there was an element of recklessness towards the possibility of causing grievous injury to the victim, finding him guilty of attempted grievous bodily harm, causing fear of violence using a weapon, damaging private property, possession of a weapon during the commission of a crime, breaching the peace, exceeding the limits of correction, and committing an offence he was duty bound to prevent.

Sheehan was sentenced to 22 months of imprisonment, suspended for three years. The pistol and ammunition used was confiscated. A protection order for Smith was issued and Sheehan was ordered to pay €7,543 in costs.

Assistant Commissioner Alexandra Mamo, Inspectors Jesmond Micallef and Saviour Baldacchino prosecuted.

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