Cassone Murder | Fear prevented eyewitnesses from identifying killer

Witnesses said they had always been certain but had feared revenge from the accused or possible accomplices

D'Agostino said he could never forget the killer's face
D'Agostino said he could never forget the killer's face

A jury has heard a retired police superintendent claim that two eyewitnesses to a fatal shooting had been reluctant to positively identify the killer in an identification parade because of concerns about their safety.

The accused, whose name is being withheld on the orders of the court, is indicted in connection with a botched robbery at Chef Italia Gastronomia in St Julian’s in 1993 which claimed the life of Italian national Vittorio Cassone. The Maltese man accused is indicted for wilful homicide, theft aggravated by violence, means, time and value, holding a person against their will, possession of a firearm without the necessary police licence and carrying a loaded weapon outside its transportation container.

Retired police superintendent Chris Pullicino took the witness stand today, explaining that the case had been assigned to him upon his joining the Criminal Investigation Department in 2003, one of several unsolved murders from 1970s that he had been assigned.

He had approached Victor Testa who had been arrested in connection with the hold-up and on whose clothing gunshot residue had been found. Pullicino explained that Testa had claimed to have given a lift to the accused and two other people on the day of the murder and one of them had fired a shot out of the car window to show off.

Superintendent Pullicino had later spoken to Silvano D'Agostini and Marco Russo, both employees at the restaurant. D'Agostini had told the officer that he was eager to unburden himself of the secret that he had recognised the accused in the ID parades. The witness recalled that when D'Agostini had recognised the accused, he had wanted to open the door and attack him for what he had done to his boss.

Much was made by the defence about the fact that the employees had identified the accused with 99% certainty, arguing that this implied there was still doubt.

Pullicino recalled the Italian as saying that the face of the killer was not something he could ever forget. He had asked D'Agostini why he had not said he was 100% sure immediately, the Italian had replied he that had “always been certain but had feared revenge from the accused or possible accomplices.”

Both D'Agostino and Russo had feared reprisals by the killer, or his accomplices, because they weren't sure if there were other criminals involved in the robbery and because the accused had escaped from prison in the past.

D'Agostini released a statement in 2005, Pullicino said. When he had been contacted by the police, the Italian had remarked that “finally his conscience could rest” because he couldn't bear holding it in anymore. That day [of the identification parade] he had recognised Cassano's killer, he said. The fact that the police had sent for him had removed the option of continuing to withhold this fact.

The CID inspector was asked about Testa and why he had not featured prominently in the investigation.

“I had searched the police database for Testa's photo. In 1993, his photo was one with a moustache and big hair. He didn't fit the description of the accused at all...the person I saw in 2005, the moustache was gone and his hair was cropped short.”

“I didn't stress the Testa angle because his alibi had been verified by the commissioner of police (Rizzo) himself. He met him on the steps at Paola, how then could he have been involved in the murder?”

When he had taken over the investigation, Testa was the first person he had spoken to, Pullicino recalled, because although Testa had provided a rock solid alibi, gunshot residue had subsequently been found on him.

Magistrate Peralta had concluded his inquiry by encouraging the police to continue to investigate the case, in particular by questioning Testa again, in view of the GSR particles.

The accused had already been identified while he was on the run, before the formal identification parade, through photographs on the police database, the jury was told. “When someone gives a description of a suspect, they are fed into a system and matching photographs are shown. This is the system adopted across the globe. A description is fed into the E-fit system and results shown to the witness. The identification parade is the last step.”

Bullet too deformed to trace the weapon - Ballistics experts

Brigadier Maurice Calleja and former policeman Jesmond Cassar, who had been nominated as court experts to prepare a ballistics report, also testified briefly today.

They recounted that a lone .22 long rifle cartridge case had been recovered from the scene. The victim had a small entry wound on his right hand side of his chest and no exit wound, they said. Cassano's autopsy recovered the squashed .22LR lead round from the body.

Despite the name “long rifle,” the cartridge is often used in handguns, preferred by novice shooters for its low recoil and noise. The round recovered from the body had been fired by a semi automatic weapon, the experts said. The round was too badly damaged to be compared to test bullets or for rifling to be compared with any individual weapon, the jury was told.

It was fired from around a metre away from the direction of the door, they said. 

The trial 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.