Medical examination before Degiorgios’ guilty plea ‘only partially satisfactory’, lawyers argue

Lawyers for Alfred and George Degiorgio argue that one of the brothers was in a weakened state and that the decision to plead guilty was taken before the medical examination

The fact that Alfred and George Degiorgio had been medically cleared to stand trial right before they pleaded guilty to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, was only “partially satisfactory,” as  “decisions had already been taken at that stage”, their lawyers have argued.

The Court of Criminal Appeal, presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, Mr. Justice Giovanni Grixti and Mr. Justice Joseph R. Micallef began hearing the Degiorgo brothers’ appeal against the 40-year sentence that they had agreed to, in exchange for pleading guilty to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The appeal had been filed less than two weeks after the defendants had been sentenced after pleading guilty on the first day of their trial by jury.

The judges heard submissions by lawyer Leslie Cuschieri, who is representing the brothers, together with lawyer Noel Bianco, as well as those of Deputy Attorney General Philip Galea Farrugia this morning.

One of the Degiorgios’ arguments is that Alfred Degiorgio had been in a weakened state, a result of a hunger strike on the day of the trial.

This had affected his ability to resist, or properly think through, the decision to admit guilt, said the lawyers.

The decisions by the accused men had not been made after the psychiatrists had examined them, Cuschieri said. “There were decisions that they had taken earlier in the day.”

“The fact that at the moment they were examined, according to the court experts, they were aware of what was happening is only partially satisfactory.”

The court had to be convinced that the defendants were not only aware of what was happening but also that they were fully aware of the consequences of their actions, the lawyer submitted.

Cuschieri argued that although the court had explained the import of an admission of guilt to the defendants, the law also imposed a requirement on the court to explain the consequences of a plea bargain, upon being informed that it was a possibility. “This did not appear, from the court records, to have happened,” said Cuschieri, explaining that the Degiorgios’ request for court CCTV footage was intended to settle this point.

“The footage should show not only the exact words said, but also whether the individual said “yes, I want this” or “yes, whatever.” There is no better evidence of this than the footage.”

The footage would also provide evidence of what Alfred Degiorgio said to and was told by the nurses treating him, he said.

The examination carried out by court-appointed medical expert Dr. Mario Scerri “only ascertained whether Degiorgio was going to live, whether he would stay conscious,” said the lawyer. The second court-appointed expert, psychiatrist Beppe Micallef Trigona had only told the court that Alfred Degiorgio knew what was going on, and not that he was aware of the consequences of his plea, argued the lawyer, adding that the defence wanted them to testify again. Cuschieri argued that under the criminal code, the court had a duty to hear new evidence which could prevent a miscarriage of justice.

“Beyond what the masses say, or the media. We must focus on justice. We cannot do what Pilate did, give in to the baying crowd,” concluded the lawyer.

In his reply, Deputy Attorney General Philip Galea Farrugia said that there was no doubt that the law permitted the medical experts to testify again in extraordinary circumstances. “But are the circumstances extraordinary? The best evidence is what had been provided by the medical specialists at the time.”

Galea Farrugia explained how when, during the afternoon of the first day of the trial, he had received a phone call from the Degiorgio’s legal aid counsel, lawyer Simon Micallef Stafrace informing him about the Degiorgio’s intention to change plea, the court had immediately appointed medical professionals to examine the accused.

Furthermore, he said, the court had given them not just two, but three opportunities to revoke their plea, also pointing out that the judge had informed them that they were agreeing to a 40 year sentence before they signed the plea deal.
Of Alfred Degiorgio’s state of health, Galea Farrugia recalled what he had observed at the time. “He was pallid and in discomfort, but it doesn’t mean he was not fit to plead”

Besides this, said the prosecutor, the negotiations over the plea deal had taken over three hours, which showed that it had not been a rash  or spur of the moment decision on the part of the defendants. 

Galea Farrugia questioned what the CCTV footage could possibly prove at this stage, asking “what added value would this provide to the court?”

After hearing both sides’ submissions, the Court announced that it would be issuing a decree from chambers on the Degiorgios' application for the exhibition of CCTV footage.

The case was adjourned to May.