Court asks regulatory body to investigate lawyer about false claims of collusion

The Magistrates’ Court found that the accused’s belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy had been strengthened by his lawyer, and urged the Commission for the Administration of Justice to take 'all action that it deems opportune'

The Court of Magistrates has asked the Commission for the Administration of Justice to take action against lawyer Noel Bianco who, it says, misled a client into believing that his estranged wife had colluded with the judicial authorities to get him extradited.

The case revolved around a letter sent by Christian Demanuele to the President of the Republic, calling on her to exercise her powers under the Criminal Code and obtain his release from arrest. Demanuele had been in custody after being brought to Malta from the Czech Republic on the strength of a European Arrest Warrant.

Inspector Rennie Stivala had taken custody of the accused after he arrived in Malta in March 2014 to face charges of fraud, falsification of documents and use of falsified documents in relation to his estranged wife. Several bail requests were rejected and so the man wrote to the president on 12 March 2015.

Demanuele had written a letter to the President of the Republic, in which he made a number of wild conspiracy allegations, involving the then outgoing magistrate Carol Peralta, the deputy Attorney General at the time and the magistrate who had refused him bail and his “expedited extradition.”

Inspector Saviour Baldacchino then charged Demanuele with filing a false report of an inexistent crime, simulation of an offence, knowingly making a false declaration to a public authority, making calumnious accusations, attempting to influence a judge, magistrate or the attorney general and insulting a public official.

In an exhaustively detailed 38-page judgement on the case, Magistrate Doreen Clarke found that, far from colluding, the officials in question had been the victims of a false scenario that was deliberately planted in the man's head by his lawyer.

The court observed how, after his arraignment, Demanuele’s case had been assigned to Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera. After arraignment, all criminal cases are assigned to magistrates by lot, to avoid forum shopping. Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, at the time Deputy Attorney General and an expert on EAWs in the AG’s office, was prosecuting.

In his testimony, Demanuele toldf the court that after he had engaged Noel Bianco to represent him, the first thing the lawyer had done was to tell him about his suspicions that the public prosecutor and the magistrate had been colluding in his extradition case with a view to helping out his estranged wife.

Bianco had told the man, who at the time had been in a vulnerable and heavily medicated state, to inform the Czech authorities about the “conflict of interest”. Demanuele said that Bianco had also told him that he gave private lessons to Scerri Herrera's son and that he had spoken to her about the case – and that she had decided to drop some of the charges.

The court was told that Demanuele had written the letter to the President after reading the Criminal Code and finding that one could make such a plea. He had discussed the matter with Bianco, who had made some suggested edits. The man insisted that he had written it himself, noted the court, “under the influence of the absurdities that his lawyer had told him.”

Nicholas Vilagi, who had been Demanuele's cellmate in Corradino Correctional Facility, had described the accused as a quiet and genuine person, under a lot of stress due to the fact that he wasn't allowed to see his children and was being denied bail. He recounted how lawyer Noel Bianco, who had not been his lawyer, nor had ever spoken to him before, had visited Vilagi in prison and had tried to show him some documents about Demanuele, but he did not know Maltese and could not understand them. This had happened after the letter to the President had been posted and was going through the laborious and time-consuming prison mail processing system.

Bianco had also testified and claimed that he had denied telling the accused to speak to his Czech lawyer to report the alleged conflict of interest. He said that he had tried to dissuade the man from sending the letter and had only been shown a part of it as they were in court, walking to a sitting.

The court observed the obvious conflicts between details in the version told by the accused and that told by defence witnesses, including his lawyer. These included the fact that while Bianco had insisted that the first time he had seen the letter to the President was in the hands of the accused as he was being moved from the lock up to the courtroom, the accused had been seen to react with surprise when Bianco had asked him in the courtroom whether he had sent this letter, “because the lawyer had already been informed of it.”

It also observed that the lawyer claimed to have seen the letter in the hands of the accused and renounced his patronage, but had then been unable to immediately present a copy of the letter in court.

The court noted that the majority of the correctional officers summoned to testify to corroborate parts of the accused's version about his conversations with Bianco were “very reluctant witnesses and possibly could have remembered a lot more than what they said they did”.

A number of things were certain, held the magistrate. There was nothing anomalous in the manner in which his EAW was issued or the haste with which Demanuele was extradited to Malta – indeed, the timeframes were all in line with those laid down in the law.

Neither was there anything extraordinary in the fact that his bail requests had been rejected by the court of magistrates and had been granted on appeal because the AG did not oppose it, as the process of collecting the prosecution's evidence had been nearly concluded by that time. The court also said it could not fault the manner in which Magistrate Scerri Herrera had conducted the hearing of his urgent court applications.

“In addition to this, there is no evidence in the acts of the proceedings that shows any form of collusion between the persons mentioned by the accused in his letter, aimed at favouring his wife or placing him at a disadvantage.”

The court also noted that “after having the benefit of hearing all the prosecution's evidence, the accused seemed to realise that the conclusions he had reached... had been mistaken and had indicated this in his deposition”.

The accused had told the court that his mistaken belief had been the result of psychological effects caused by his traumatic detention in the Czech Republic and in Malta “as well as the things he was being told by Dr Bianco”.

Magistrate Clarke also referred to the fact that the accused had described Bianco as his sole point of reference during his detention. He had told the court that not only had the lawyer not tried to dissuade him from his suspicions, but had strengthened and stoked them. Bianco denied this, but the court said a lurking doubt remained and doubt counts in favour of the accused.

The court said that it was convinced that due – to his inexperience in court affairs – in his mind, the accused had built up a narrative that led him to believe that there was a plot against him. This is what led him to send the letter to the President, it said, noting that the letter itself distinguished between what he had been told, his suspicions and his conclusions.

In view of the fact of his honest belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy, and that this belief had been strengthened by his lawyer, the court held that the knowledge of falsity required for the offences with which he had been charged was absent.

But whilst it acquitted Demanuele of all charges, the court ordered that a copy of the sentence, together with copies of the testimony tendered by the accused and his cellmate be delivered to the Commission for the Administration of Justice “for all action that it deems opportune.”

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