Defence in fatal 2015 New Year's eve crash case casts doubt on forensic evidence

Lawyers for young man accused of involuntary homicide cast doubt over chain of custody of blood alcohol test samples

Matthew Meilak (left) with friends Miguel Camilleri and Edward Cole, on holiday. Photo: Facebook
Matthew Meilak (left) with friends Miguel Camilleri and Edward Cole, on holiday. Photo: Facebook

Lawyers for Terence Tanti, a young man accused of the involuntary homicide of 22-year-old law student Matthew Meilak have cast doubt on the chain of custody of the samples upon which the prosecution is basing its case.

Tanti, who also stands accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol, causing serious injury to another passenger, dangerous driving and causing damage to an electricity pole, appeared before magistrate Audrey Demicoli this morning as the compilation of evidence against him continued.

The tragic road accident in which Meilak lost his life happened at around 3:45am on 1 January 2015 in Rabat Road, Nadur, Gozo, while Meilak and four of his friends were on their way back from a private party held at a Nadur farmhouse.

Court expert Michael Refalo who was appointed by the court to take samples and test Tanti’s blood had previously told the court that Tanti had well in excess of the legal limit of 80 mg/dl blood alcohol. The test was held four hours after the fatal incident in which Meilak was killed.

Tanti denies driving drunk.

Forensic expert Mario Scerri was cross-examined by lawyer Joe Giglio during today’s sitting. Scerri was asked about the chain of custody of samples taken from the accused, which returned high blood alcohol levels. Scerri said they had been deposited at the mortuary a couple of days after being taken, in a security bag.

But pressed on exactly when they had been taken there and to whom they had been given, Scerri was unable to recall.

“They are kept in a strongroom at the mortuary. The technicians at the mortuary inform me when they arrive. I can’t say for certain when these samples arrived.”          

The court expert had been unable to go to the mortuary on 1 January and had only been appointed to provide his expertise to the case on the 14 January, he said. The samples had been handed over by inspector Frank Tabone, he said, but could not recall when.

“What I have is on 14 January you are appointed by the court. After that, you can’t say when you received the sample. You say you collected them from inspector Tabone…”

“I didn’t get them from him personally, but he left them at the mortuary… the control I had was from when they arrived at the mortuary till when I handed them to a UK-based expert.”

The specimen had been received without full documentation of the chain of custody, it emerged.

Although samples degrade over time, experts are usually able to extrapolate the results and obtain reliable figures for blood alcohol, but the inability to pinpoint the exact date when it was tested was seized upon by the defence.

“Do you have anything to say for the fact that this extremely drunk man recalled the incident in minute detail?” Giglio asked Scerri.

“I would have been happier to answer had I seen him at the time. I only saw him in the courtroom. If the results are 260mg/dl for alcohol and he is so lucid, then he did not have 260mg/dl in his blood.”

The case continues.

Inspector Frank Anthony Tabone is prosecuting. Lawyer Joe Giglio is defence counsel.

Magistrate Audrey Demicoli is presiding the compilation of evidence.

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