Murdered drug runner’s family says jury that will try accused not fit to reach verdict

Family of murdered drug runner Roderick Grech claims breach of fair trial because of Maltese jury system • alleged drug lord Jordan Azzopardi will be witness in case

Roderick Grech is believed to have beens stabbed to death by Etienne Bartolo back in March 2017
Roderick Grech is believed to have beens stabbed to death by Etienne Bartolo back in March 2017

The family of a murdered drug runner has filed a human rights breach case, claiming the jury that will try the man accused of his murder, is not well-equipped to reach a proper verdict and would breach their right to a fair hearing.

The mother and sisters of 26-year-old Roderick Grech, stabbed to death by 38-year-old Etienne Bartolo, aka ‘il-Vojt’, filed their claim this week – just two weeks before Bartolo faces a trial by jury.

Bartolo was charged with the murder in March 2017, after Grech succumbed to stab wounds in an argument over an unpaid debt for drugs.

Police sources who spoke to MaltaToday say they were floored by the Grech family’s request, filed by lawyer Franco Debono, claiming it risked upending the forthcoming trial by jury.

“The family is insisting that jurors are not skilled in reaching a proper legal verdict and that as parte civile they have limited input in the Attorney General’s prosecution during the trial. But it’s an eleventh-hour request… not by the defendant but by the family of the victim: why?”

On his part, Debono – who had already filed a similar constitutional case in 2018 for the accused in a murder trial – told MaltaToday he would not comment on the case.

The Grech family also claimed they had not been informed of the jury date set for the 2 September, and that they were only informed by third parties.

The trial is also expected to summon as witness Jordan Azzopardi, the alleged drug lord whose Wardija hide-out was raided in a major sting operation earlier this year. Azzopardi is also represented by Debono.

This is not the first time that Debono requests constitutional scrutiny of Malta’s trial by jury system: in 2018, he argued that the system violated a defendant’s right to a fair trial, in this case Marco Pace, known as ‘il-Pinzell’, who stands accused of murdering Victor Magri, aka ‘iċ-Ċinku’, almost 14 years ago. A decision on that constitutional case has not yet been reached.

As in that court application, Debono pokes holes in a jury system which provides no pre-trial legal training or guidance for jurors, who get shortlisted at biannual meetings between the Police Commissioner, Attorney General and the chiefs of lawyers’ and legal procurators’ lobbies.

Debono is making similar representations for the family of murder victim Roderick Grech, aka ‘ic-China’, who was killed in the early hours of 29 March 2017 when he met Etienne Bartolo to settle payment for drugs he had sold him a day earlier. But the drug runner’s luck ran out when in an ensuring argument, Grech was stabbed several times. A passer-by found Grech on the ground on Tumas Fenech street, in Birkirkara, at 1:10am, and while giving him First Aid assistance, heard Grech utter the words “vojt… vojt” – the accused’s nickname.

Now, just two weeks before Bartolo is expected to face a trial by jury for the murder, Grech’s family is insisting that jurors in Malta are not equipped to be able to reach a proper verdict.

“They have a lack of training which itself breaches the fundamental rights of the accused and the parte civile [the victim’s family] to have this case heard in the most judicious and impartial of ways,” Debono stated in the Grech family’s constitutional application.

Malta’s judicial system indeed does not provide a system in which jurors can be prepared to reach a verdict through a system of specific questions as employed in Spain, Russia, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Norway and Switzerland.

In the protest, Debono said that even former Attorney General Anthony Borg Barthet had remarked that jurors “don’t have the experience to make certain decisions… the jury are not academically  trained and [decisions] can be taken emotionally.”

Debono added that in 2010 the European Court of Human Rights [in Taxquet vs Belgium] declared that, while verdicts reached without motivating questions do not breach the right to a fair hearing, “precise questions to the jury were an indispensable requirement in order for the applicant to understand any guilty verdict reached against him.”

The Taxquet case had indeed prompted legal changes in France, where now jurors are required to produce a statement of the main items of evidence against the defendant which persuaded them of each of the charges against the accused.

Debono said in his protest that Maltese jurors are not given an explanation of the legal principles employed throughout a trial, nor do they have “the necessary acumen” to deliberate and finally decide in an impartial way.

He added that not even Maltese law explains how jurors should be selected for such trials. “The way a jury is selected is not laid down in the law… in the UK and the USA, jurors are selected at random… in the USA a jury commission and in the UK a central summoning bureau are responsible for the random selection of jurors from a list of registered voters. This transparency is not employed in the Maltese system, and therefore this system breaches fundamental human rights.”

In a second point of the constitutional application, Debono also says the Grech family’s rights will be breached in the upcoming trial because they cannot participate in the prosecution, as is done in the compilation of evidence stage that precedes the trial.

The only point in which the Grech family’s lawyer can intervene is when the Court is deliberating on the punishment requested by the Attorney General, as the chief prosecutor.

“This is a very a limited form of participation… the injured party has every interest to be involved in an active way in the proceedings of a trail by jury.

“Indeed this is a total contrast to the compilation of evidence stage, in which the parte civile is participating in a direct way by asking any witness it wants any question, and make direct submissions on legal points.”

Maltese juries

In Austria, jurors in a trial must reach their verdict on the basis of a detailed questionnaire. The questions are intended to help guide jurors in their thinking as a way of ensuring they reach a verdict based on the facts of the case rather than external factors. Some countries, like Spain, even require juries to explain why they reached their final verdict.

In Malta, legal concepts are not explained to jurors before they enter the courtroom, and it is only at the very end of a trial, once they have heard the various witnesses and claims, that the presiding judge sums up the proceedings for jurors and explains what is expected of them.

Jurors in Malta have to be individuals older than 21 and not be facing trial or bankruptcy proceedings. Anyone with a “notorious physical or mental defect” is also disqualified.

Certain categories of people – from MPs to top civil servants and teachers – are exempt from jury duty. Each jury is made up of eight members and one foreman, who must have previously served on a jury to qualify for the role.

Both the prosecution and the defence can object to a particular juror, but only by asking a maximum of three questions to each juror to try to determine whether they are biased or unfit to perform jury duty.