Judge throws out Degiorgios' Constitutional case over fair trial complaint

“The applicants’ behaviour indicates to this court that what they had effectively wanted was not a defence lawyer of their own choosing, but to play for time” - Madam Justice Audrey Demicoli

Brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio pleaded guilty to murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia and were jailed for 40 years each
Brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio pleaded guilty to murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia and were jailed for 40 years each

A Constitutional case in which Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassins had claimed a breach of their fair trial rights has been dismissed, with the court observing, amonst other things, that the defendants had wasted 40 days by refusing to speak to their legal aid lawyers.

George Degiorgio, 60, and his brother Alfred Degiorgio, 58, had been sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2022 after pleading guilty, 9 hours into their trial for planting and detonating the bomb which killed journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. The sentence was later confirmed on appeal.

Throughout the compilation of evidence against them, the Degiorgios had been represented by lawyer William Cuschieri, who renounced the  brief in August 2022, shortly after they made a candid admission to having carried out the murder, in an interview with Reuters journalist Stephen Grey. The brothers were subsequently assigned legal aid lawyers.

In that Constitutional case, which had been filed shortly before their trial date, the brothers had claimed that their right to a fair hearing would be breached in several ways, were their trial to go ahead as planned. Their request for an interim measure, which would have stayed their trial, had been rejected by the court at the outset.

In an extensively researched judgement handed down on Friday, citing judgments from the European Court of Human Rights as well as local jurisprudence, Madam Justice Audrey Demicoli rejected all of the brothers’ claims. 

Far from imposing representation on the defendants, the Criminal Court had only appointed two legal aid defence lawyers as a measure of last resort, after the Degiorgios had given it the impression that they were unable to find a lawyer willing to take up the brief on their own. The Criminal Court had, in fact, doubled the 20 day period the Degiorgios were granted by the law to engage a lawyer, said the court “and could not continue to adjourn the trial ad aeternum.” 

The principle that justice should happen within a reasonable time meant that the fact that the Criminal Court made it clear that it was not going to delay the trial further was a “relevant and sufficient ground” for it to appoint the defence lawyers itself. 

The Criminal Court and, after it, the Court of Criminal Appeal both had the opportunity to examine whether there had been any procedural shortcomings or prejudice caused to the applicants that would justify a retrial and found none, noted the judge.

In fact, the Court of Criminal Appeal had ruled that the situation that had developed was “simply the effect of that started by the defendants’ lawyer of choice, in the sense that the plea bargaining and subsequent admission of guilt is only the conclusion of an initiative they had started at a time when they had been assisted by that lawyer, which had come to an end precisely when the Court asked them what they were pleading to the charges against them.”

“Not only did the applicants have a right to appeal, but their complaints had already been raised and examined in detail by the Court of Criminal Appeal, which had specifically concluded that the applicants’ rights had not been prejudiced before the first court.”

The judge said the court was of the opinion that through its appointment of legal aid counsel, the Criminal Court had helped and not hindered the applicants, “with the aim of ensuring that no more time was wasted and that the applicants would have legal assistance during their trial. It had appointed able lawyers, experienced in trials by jury, and this after the applicants had been given the opportunity to engage a lawyer themselves.”

Degiorgio brothers’ real intention was to play for time, judge says

Those lawyers had been afforded double the minimum time period proposed by the law. The court said it didn’t find it hard to believe that the legal aid lawyers found before them a substantial amount of documents and acts, as they had declared to the court on October 14, 2022, but at the same time, neither could it conclude that 40 days were insufficient for the applicants to prepare their defence.

“Perhaps it is true that it was not ideal for the legal aid lawyers to be put in that position at that stage of the proceedings…but this does not mean that the 40 day period was not sufficient.”

It was also noted that during that 40-day period, when the Degiorgios were supposed to be preparing their defence with their lawyers, “they had dug in their heels and continued to try and find a defence lawyer of their choosing, despite there having already been two lawyers appointed for that purpose.”

Alfred Degiorgio had told the court that the only occasion when he and his brother had spoken to lawyer Simon Micallef Stafrace had been through Skype, shortly before the jury was due to start. “In the opinion of this Court, the applicants cannot argue that they had not been given enough time to prepare a defence, when they had effectively ‘wasted’ the time they were granted by the Criminal Court for this purpose.” Even had the brothers succeeded in finding a lawyer willing to take up the brief at that stage, the 40 day period would not have been lengthened, and if it was, not by much, said the judge.

“The applicants’ behaviour indicates to this court that what they had effectively wanted was not a defence lawyer of their own choosing, but to play for time,” the judge said, dismissing the case, ordering all costs to be paid for by the Degiorgios.