Two police officers charged with involuntary homicide over man's 2020 death in custody

Richmond Tong died after suffering a seizure in his cell at the police headquarters during the night of 24 June 2020

Police Headquarters
Police Headquarters

Two police officers appeared in court on Monday morning charged over a man’s death whilst in police custody at the police’s Floriana headquarters.

28 year-old Stacy Gatt from iż-Żebbuġ and Karl Nikolai Vella Cassia, 35, from Rabat were charged before magistrate Doreen Clarke with the involuntary homicide of Richard Tong, 35 of Mtarfa.

Tong died after suffering a seizure in his cell at the police headquarters on 24 June at 3.40am. He is believed to have been taken into custody after police stopped his car for breaching traffic regulations and discovered cannabis inside the vehicle when it was searched.

Vella Cassia alone was also charged with giving false testimony under oath before inquiring magistrate Josette Demicoli.

Both of the accused persons pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against them.

Inspector Daryl Borg gave the court an overview of what led to the charges, explaining that Tong had been seen to chew and then swallow something when his car was stopped by the RIU. 

The police officers had asked Tong what he had just swallowed and he had replied that it was a substance “similar to what he had in another bag in his car.” The bag was located after a brief search and was found to contain cannabis. 

The officers had then asked Tong to drive to the Rabat police station, radioing ahead that they had seen him swallowing something. The Rabat police station had then informed Gatt, who had been the duty inspector on call at the time.

At Rabat, Tong had confirmed that he had swallowed a substance which he said contained cannabis. Inspector Gatt had ordered that the man be held in custody since the drugs found in his car exceeded the amount permitted at law. 

Officers from the Rabat police station then drove to police HQ and handed Tong over to the Floriana lock up, where he subsequently died, he said. 

Cross-examined by lawyer Giannella De Marco, appearing for Inspector Stacy Gatt, as to whether it was the RIU officers who had given the order that Tong drive himself to Floriana, Inspector Borg replied in the affirmative, but pointed out that the magisterial inquiry had concluded that the RIU officers should not bear responsibility for this.

Asked by lawyer Joe Giglio, defence counsel to sergeant Vella Cassia, as to whether there was some form of internal policy regulating how police officers should deal with such cases, inspector Borg replied that he was not aware of any. 

Lawyer Franco Debono, appearing as parte civile for the family of the victim, asked the inspector what is required of a police officer when faced with such a situation.  The prosecuting officer said he would definitely request medical assistance.

The Magistrate, noting that the parties had both agreed that the witnesses and experts who testified during the magisterial inquiry need not testify again during the compilation of evidence, made an order to this effect under section 550 of the criminal code. 

The proceedings come after an official announcement last month stating that two police officers would be charged in connection with the man’s death, but giving no further details. 

Both officers are understood to have been suspended from their duties in view of the pending criminal case.

Last year, Tong’s family had filed a judicial letter accusing the State of being responsible for his death and demanding compensation.

The case continues in September.

Police inspector Darryl Borg led the prosecution.

Lawyer Giannella de Marco assisted Gatt, while Vella Cassia was assisted by Joe Giglio.

Lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and Francesca Zarb appeared for the victim’s family.