Defence attacks witnesses’ credibility as chef identifies ‘unmistakable’ likeness

Witness in jury of man accused of murdering Italian restaurant worker Vittorio Cassone in 1993 describes killer's eyes, which he described as 'very intense' and 'evil'

Lawyers defending a man accused of the murder of Italian restaurant worker Vittorio Cassone, who was shot dead during the 1993 armed robbery at Chef Italy in St Julians hit at the credibility of the Italian witnesses and cast doubt on the wisdom of pursuing the case at all.

Defence lawyer Franco Debono began making his submissions yesterday afternoon, the prosecution having announced that it had no further evidence to present once the cross-examination of the cook at Chef Italy, Silvano D’Agostini had been concluded.

Earlier in the day, D’Agostini, who 24 hours earlier had revealed for the first time that he had seen accomplices in a waiting getaway car, was grilled on how he had picked out the accused in an identification parade at police HQ, 23 years ago.

“My memory is a bit confused after so many years, but I remember that all of the people who had been there had been summoned to the police Depot in Floriana... At the end of the day, we all selected a number representing the person we recognised and all of us had given the same number.”

Yesterday, two decades after the murder, D’Agostini was shown a picture of the police lineups, picking out the accused’s number without hesitation. “Unmistakable,” he remarked.

The cook said it had been important to hear the voices of those paraded, because the robber’s voice had a particular timbre. But most of all, he said, he remembered the killer’s eyes, which he described as “very intense. Evil.”

“The robber was young, he had acne,” the witness recalled.

After a prolonged revisiting of his initial “90%” claim of certainty that he recognised the accused in a line-up, only to later suggest that he had been absolutely certain but was fearful of revenge, defence lawyer Franco Debono suggested that the court should proceed against the witness for lying under oath.

“What I am saying, I am certain of,” the witness continued, placidly. He recalled explaining to Inspector Pullicino that he had been afraid and had not felt safe at the time and so had stopped short of positively identifying the accused.

The witness said he still lives in Malta with the victim’s widow. He was asked about this arrangement.

“After this happened, the family was destroyed. Going back in time, Vittorio and I were great friends because we had worked together a lot. The day before his murder, Vittorio had a premonition that he was going to die. I am saying this under oath. In fact, when I had been cleaning the shop, he had come to me and said ‘if something happens to me, take care of my family, my kids’... I asked him why and he said he just felt something was going to happen.

“His daughter had been studying in Italy and I used to send her money. I felt I had to help Vittorio’s family. I became like a father to them. After the restaurant closed down, years later, I moved away and some years after that, his widow had started coming over. Her children love me like a second father.” Had he not taken her in, she would have starved, D’Agostini said.

D’Agostini denied that this living arrangement had any bearing on his testimony and strongly rebutted the defence’s repeated suggestions that the widow had wanted to influence his testimony so as to exact revenge.

“I swear that nobody obliged me to say anything. We don’t talk about it,” the witness said in reply to questions by lawyer Marion Camilleri.

She suggested that he had made up the story of having opened the cash and handing over the money, so as to be able to say that he recognised him. “I opened the cash register,” he repeated. It was pointed out that witnesses Fabrizio Comaldini and Rose Mary Suda had said otherwise.

“We didn’t plan our testimony.” he replied calmly. He conceded that, of all the people present in the shop at the time, he had been the one who saw the least, as he had been in the kitchen. “But before he fired, I stuck my head out of the doorway. I saw this person with the tights on his head and a pistol. I saw Vittorio with his hands above his head.

“I went back to the kitchen to pick up two knives. In the meantime I heard the shot. Marco threw himself into the kitchen as I was going out of it... Maybe I had been the person who had been there for the least amount of time, but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t see him.”

But the other witnesses had said that the robber had already left when D’Agostini had emerged. Suda had said that the only persons who had been there had been Comaldini, Russo and her. The other persons had emerged only after the aggressor had left the establishment.

“No, no, no. I had gone to get the knives, maybe it was a crazy thing to do. I heard the shot. I opened the door and saw Vittorio on the floor.”

She pointed out that yesterday had been the first time he had mentioned the getaway car. “Nobody had asked me about it. I had mentioned it yesterday because I remembered it.”

“What I want is to see the person and have him condemned.”

If his interest had been to have the killer condemned, Camilleri asked why he hadn’t gone to the police himself, instead of waiting to be called to testify in 2005. He had tried other means, he said. “The insurance had not paid his widow a cent. We had taken them to court and the case had been decided on appeal... not a cent. At least for justice...”

The defence suggested that former police commissioner John Rizzo had told the court that charges had not been pressed before, because of doubts. “I never had any doubts, I had always confirmed that it was he,” D’Agostini replied.


Defence attacks Italian witnesses’ credibility in opening salvo

The accused declined to testify, marking the end of the evidence phase of the trial and the start of oral submissions.

Defence lawyer Franco Debono took to this task with gusto, beginning his defence by attacking the credibility of the eyewitnesses and the decision to prosecute.

Former Police Commissioner Rizzo and former Assistant Commissioner Emmanuel Cassar had felt sufficient doubt to stop them from prosecuting, he said.

He reminded jurors that Rizzo had reported that none of the witnesses had been sure beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had been the killer. “He did your work for you,” Debono quipped.

Magistrate Peralta’s inquiry had ended four years after the crime. Police generally want to press charges as soon as possible due to their workload, Debono argued. The fact that they didn’t, he said, spoke volumes about their lack of conviction.

He tore into the credibility of the Italian witnesses, telling jurors that “in the defence’s opinion, Suda is the most independent witness.”

D’Agostini faces Cassone’s widow and children every day and must have been influenced, he argued.  “D’Agostini wants to turn you into a buttress for his own conscience. Notice, even, how the relationship [with the victim’s widow] started.”

“Marco Russo could not be more inconsistent. 50 pages of testimony in Maltese, then he says he wants a translator when his back was against the wall... a self-professed liar.” He asked jurors to listen to the recordings of his testimony to confirm that immediately after asking for a translator, the witness had started talking in Maltese again.

“So arrogant is this man, that he tried to cast doubt on the veracity of the acts of the magisterial inquiry.” ‘Whoever wrote that must have been lying,’ Russo testified yesterday when confronted with testimony he tendered during the compilation of evidence in 2006.

Debono also drew the jurors’ attention to the fact that Fabrizio Comaldini had picked out a certain Jason Galea some eight times during the identification parades and that the inquiring magistrate had concluded his inquiry by encouraging the police to continue their investigations. “He didn’t mention the accused.”

“The accused had turned himself in to the police because he had been on the run, together with five or six others after escaping from prison and not admit this murder. It would be a grave injustice to decide on a person’s guilt on account of his past,” the lawyer said.

The trial continues.

Lawyers Kevin Valletta and Anne Marie Cutajar are prosecuting.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri are defence counsel.

The media has been prohibited from reporting the name of the accused, on account of the fact that he had been 17 at the time of the murder.