Attempted murder convict awarded €3,000 in damages over unassisted police statement

The prisoner, who is serving an 18-year sentence for stabbing a motorist in 2005, had filed constitutional proceedings three years ago

A prisoner serving an 18-year sentence for stabbing a motorist in the chest in a 2005 road rage incident has been awarded €3,000 in damages for a breach of his rights, three years after filing constitutional proceedings.

Stephen Pirotta, 48, from Luqa, has been in jail since 2010 when he was convicted by a jury of the attempted murder of David Azzopardi in Qormi.

Azzopardi had been stabbed as he sat in his car, during an argument which had broken out between the two motorists after Pirotta had allegedly clipped Azzopardi’s side mirror while overtaking.

Two hours after the incident, the suspected aggressor had been arrested and had later released a statement to the police without having consulted a lawyer.

He was charged with attempted murder within 36 hours of his arrest.

The man was eventually tried, the jury returning a guilty verdict of 7-2, and was jailed for 18 years. The punishment was confirmed on appeal.

In February 2016, the man had filed a constitutional application claiming that his right to a fair hearing had been breached by the fact that he had released his statement to the police without being assisted by a lawyer.

In its judgment on the case, the First Hall of the Civil Court, in its constitutional jurisdiction, observed that Pirotta had not been linked to the crime solely on the strength of his statement to the police, but had been identified as the suspect through other circumstantial evidence which led to his arrest.

The removal of the man’s statement “would have made the prosecution’s case more difficult to prove, but that did not mean that the police did not have other valid evidence to support its allegations against the accused,” observed Mr. Justice Joseph R. Micallef.

The judge also observed that the accused’s lawyer at the time had raised no objection about this, while criminal proceedings were still ongoing.

The court ruled that if a party failed to claim a breach of his right to a fair hearing once proceedings were ongoing, “it would not be just for that party to resort to the ‘constitutional’ remedy so as to attempt to cancel the effects of those proceedings.”

Pirotta had also claimed that he had been denied access to his police file, but the Court observed that it had not been proved how this could have breached his right to a fair hearing.

The man had been arraigned 36 hours after his arrest and from then on, all evidence in the police file had been “at the complete disposition of the accused and his lawyers,” the Court observed.

Having taken all this into account, the Court upheld the applicant’s breach of rights claim but with regards to the statement which had been released without the assistance or presence of his lawyer and which had been exhibited as evidence throughout the criminal proceedings against him.

The Court awarded the applicant €3,000 in non-pecuniary damages which were to be borne jointly by the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Police.

Lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and Amadeus Cachia were Pirotta’s counsel in the constitutional proceedings.