Cleared of stealing winch from priest's house, on appeal

The Chief Justice overturned the conviction for theft and criminal damage, saying that the court had 'serious doubts' as to whether the reverend’s testimony was referring to the same incident

A Gozitan man's conviction for aggravated theft and criminal damage has been overturned on appeal after a judge ruled that the circumstantial evidence surrounding the case was not unequivocal.

John Vella from Xaghra, Gozo had been convicted of stealing a winch and stone slabs from a house belonging to Monsignor Joseph Vella Gauci in Victoria, Gozo, receiving a conditional discharge and a fine for the 2011 offence. Magistrate Joe Mifsud had fined 43-year-old Vella €1,000 and ordered him to pay €575 in legal costs, holding that Vella was “incapable of living in harmony as part of a civilized society.”

The court had heard how in 2011, the Monsignor had reported the appellant for parking his vehicle in such a way as to block his access into the cleric’s property. The police had been summoned and were told that three courses of the roof’s dividing wall and a builder’s winch had disappeared.

The appellant had been engaged to demolish a low wall on the roof of the cleric’s house and had been accused of blocking the front door with his truck to ensure that nobody would be able to come in while he was there.

Vella had denied causing damage to anyone and had told police that he had taken the stone from his own property and left it on his own property. He also consistently denied stealing the winch and blocking the priest's access.

Vella had filed an appeal, insisting that the evidence provided left reasonable doubt as to his guilt, pointing to the testimony of Mons. Vella Gauci and Fr. John Meilak who had both sworn that the theft had taken place on a Sunday, whilst Vella's charges related to the night between the preceding Friday and Saturday.

At that time the crimes were allegedly being committed, he was being interrogated by the police, he argued.

Amongst other arguments, he submitted that the wall he had allegedly dismantled was still in place and that there was no evidence of him blocking doors with a truck, as had been alleged.

He denied taking the winch from the roof or that he was the only one who had access to it, insisting that a builder had placed it there by crossing the roof from Mons. Vella Gauci's property.

It was evident that the winch could have been removed in the same manner, he argued.

In fact, he said, the winch had been taken by the builder himself. That builder had tried to do so the day before, on which occasion he had been stopped by the appellant.

The only way the winch could have been taken out was through Mons Vella Gauci's property, Vella insisted, adding that the “theft” was actually a ploy intended to evade the effects of an injunction issued on the premises.

Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri, overturned the conviction for theft and criminal damage, saying that the court had “serious doubts” as to whether Rev. John Meilak's testimony, which had been tendered a year after the event and confirmed in an affidavit three years after, was referring to the same incident. The evidence, the court said, did not reasonably exclude the possibility that someone else could have accessed the property and taken the winch.

It emerged from the appellant's testimony and that of the builder, that the latter had been anxious to take the winch back “despite, and perhaps because of, the injunction on the premises.” There was nothing to contradict the appellant's consistent denials and his claim that the next door property could also be accessed from a number of other unlocked doors and adjoining roofs. Additionally, no trace of the winch was found by a police search of the appellant's property.

For this reason, the court cleared Vella of aggravated theft and repealed the suspended sentence and related financial penalty.

However the order to remove the vehicle within two months was confirmed. The court of appeal ruled that the offence of taking the law into one's own hands was an offence against the administration of justice and not an offence against property, dismissing the appellant's argument that he had been seeking to enforce a civil right which was subject to a separate lawsuit.

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