The decision by the Attorney General not to appeal the decision to clear David Gatt in the 2010 HSBC heist case is another decision that raises serious questions about the way the case was handled.
This is the second in a three-part series looking back on the State’s case against former police inspector turned lawyer David Gatt, who was accused in 2010 of being the mastermind of the botched robbery of the HSBC headquarters in Qormi. You can read part one, here.
The attempted heist has been brought back into the spotlight after well-known criminals, Vince Muscat, who is standing trial for the robbery, and the Degiorgio brothers, named a sitting minister, believed to be Carmelo Abela, and former minister, believed to be Chris Cardona, in the plot.
Gatt, who by this point had graduated as a lawyer, worked out of an office owned by Cardona. The former minister, then an MP, had in fact been questioned by the police in the aftermath of the failed robbery because of this link.
In Malta’s judicial system, the ability to bring fresh evidence during the appeal stage is very limited and the Appeals Court is primarily there to confirm a decision, provided that there aren’t serious problems with it.
Sources with knowledge of the AG’s practices in fact told Lovin Malta that as a general rule, the AG’s office appealed most sentences, especially in big cases.
Grech denied this, maintaining that only cases with a “good chance” of being overturned are appealed.
“You don’t just appeal for certainly,” Grech said. “You appeal because you reckon there is a good chance that the judgment has something defective in it. Apart from that, you need to be sure that there is a good chance of overturning the judgment on appeal otherwise you’re just losing twice.”
Legal sources, however, contradicted Grech’s assertion, pointing out that the AG lost nothing in appealing a case.
They acknowledged that the case against Gatt had been significantly weakened as a result of Portelli’s perceived lack of credibility, but pointed out that anyone familiar with Grech’s work practices would know that he would often err on the side of caution and give the direction for a case to be appealed.
This includes cases with fewer question marks surrounding them, and a lesser chance of success on appeal, than Gatt’s case.
As for the police, they again pointed to the Attorney General. “It is the Attorney General’s Office which decides whether to appeal a case,” was the spokesperson’s reply.
The police’s role in the case
The fact that the prosecution’s case rested mainly on Portelli’s comments meant it was doomed from the start.
By not investigating as well as they could have, the police effectively let the case become a contest between Gatt and Portelli, and which of the two appeared most trustworthy, as one of Lovin Malta’s sources put it.
They also pointed out that the police had barely cross-examined Gatt in court, limiting themselves to essentially telling the magistrate that the entire case was based on Portelli and his credibility as a witness.
Despite this, Portelli continued to insist on his credibility. In February 2019, Portelli uploaded a Facebook post with a letter he had sent prosecuting inspector Joseph Mercieca on the day Gatt testified in the case, in which he highlighted six claims he had made which had been corroborated by the police.
Portelli claimed that Mercieca had responded by stating that “it was useless with the Magistrate presiding in Court”.
With the Attorney General unable to make submissions before the Court of Magistrates, it would have been the police, as the main legally recognised presence prosecuting the case, that would have had to do so.
Asked what the reason for this was, a spokesperson for the police said that the “accused [had] exercised his right not to testify during the respective Court proceedings and in this regard, the prosecution acted in accordance with the law”.
One former police source did however point out that one needed to take into account the feeling about the case at the time, and how many within the police force had also doubted Portelli’s credibility.
“I too did not find him credible by the end of, but looking back today, I have to believe he was right.”
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