Cassone murder | Retired Police Commissioners say 23 years 'needed' to build solid case

Former police bosses Emmanuel Cassar and John Rizzo say the police required years 'to build a solid case' before issuing charges in 2006 relating to the murder of Italian national Vittorio Cassone 

Former police commissioners Emmanuel Cassar (L) and John Rizzo
Former police commissioners Emmanuel Cassar (L) and John Rizzo

Former police commissioners Emmanuel Cassar and John Rizzo have defended the 23-year wait to bring a murder case to trial, saying that the time taken was necessary to build the most solid case possible. 

The jury over the 1993 murder of Italian national Vittorio Cassone continued today with the two retired high-ranking police officers testifying about the delay in pressing charges. A Maltese man is on trial, accused of shooting Cassone dead in a botched robbery at Chef Italy in St Julian’s.

58-year-old Cassone had been serving patrons when a masked man emerged from a van that pulled up outside the restaurant and rushed into the restaurant. Despite having handed over some Lm150 (€350), Cassone was shot in the chest by the escaping robber and died at the scene.

The man accused of the murder is already in jail for other crimes, but cannot be named on order of the court due to the fact that he was 17 at the time he allegedly committed this crime.

The ex-police chiefs testified today, as the defence grilled them at length on the identification parades that had been carried out by the police.

This morning, Cassar explained that the restaurant's chef, Silvano D’Agostini, had picked out the accused as the perpetrator from a police line up. Lawyer Marion Camilleri argued that he had only said that the accused's face was the one that struck him the most. An argument arose as to whether the Italian had positively identified the accused or whether this had been mistranslated but this was cut short by the judge.

D'Agostini had testified during the inquiry that he had been "99% sure" that the man in the dock was the armed robber who shot his colleague.

“In every ID parade that we had carried out, the accused was identified as the person who fired the shot,” Rizzo said. “In fact, one witness had reacted angrily when he saw the accused...he wanted to attack the accused and we had to restrain him. There is always a little doubt though and we had decided to continue to investigate to eliminate as much doubt as possible.”

Both Rizzo and Cassar had explained that the police had not arraigned the accused earlier, not because of doubts as to his guilt, but because they could not be sure that witnesses would not say the wrong thing, leading to the accused being cleared and then benefit from double jeopardy after more solid evidence emerges. “I was responsible and I believe I made the right decision,” Cassar told the jury.

Several of the defence's questions centred around the figure of Victor Testa, who had also been arrested by police at the time in connection with the murder. Testa lived a 10 minute walk away from Ta’ Giorni.

Asked whether he had ever investigated Testa, Cassar said he had. Testa had released a statement to police, but this was not exhibited in the acts of the case.

The defence suggested that Testa had tested positive for gunshot residue, but the witness contradicted this. “The testing machine was defective and out of order. Even if it had been working, the results would not be immediately available,” he said.

News reports from 2006 have inspector Chris Pullicino telling the inquiring magistrate that Testa had claimed that the accused had called him, asking for a lift on the day of the shooting. While the vehicle was in motion, Testa had said, the passenger seated behind the driver had discharged a firearm from the driver’s window. He said he had pulled over to the side and ordered the men to get out of his car. Inspector Pullicino had recalled Testa’s alibi as being strong and so the police had started looking at other theories.

Cross-examined in court today, Rizzo said that although all the eyewitnesses had picked out the accused, when pressed they all expressed “that little bit of doubt.” This was the reason why the accused was not charged before. “They had that 0.1% doubt, they didn't have 100% certainty. Had one of said 'that is him, without question,' I would have charged him straight away.”

Judge Antonio Mizzi explained to the jury that it was entirely up to the police and the Attorney General to press charges. “The important thing is not simply pressing charges, that is easy...they knew their case would not withstand the test of court [with the evidence they had at that point]. They didn't want a discharge before the compilation of evidence" as the evidence might be lost forever.

The jury continues.

Lawyers Kevin Valletta and Anne Marie Cutajar from the office of the Attorney General are prosecuting.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri are defence counsel.