Malta is in uproar following the brutal murder of Paulina Dembska.
Police intend to charge 20-year-old Abner Aquilina. However, the interrogation was suspended after doctors referred Aquilina to Mount Carmel following claims that he committed the murder as “a soldier of God”.
Sources insist that police are expecting Aquilina will claim ‘insanity’ when faced with the charges. The news sparked some backlash, with many split as to whether Aquilina’s mental condition should spare him from facing justice.
“This has nothing to do with mental health!! Do not stigmatise people with mental health problems. There are hundreds, thousands of women with mental health problems living in Malta. You do not see them raping, bludgeoning and killing random men,” activist and lawyer Lara Dimitrijvic explained.
Many now question: could Abner be taking the easy route, as far as legal punishment goes? Lovin Malta sat with psychiatrist Dr Mark Xuereb to find out.
1. So what is an insanity plea?
Under Maltese law, a person is exempt from criminal responsibility if they were in a state of insanity at the time the offence was committed. It is a long-standing legal mechanism that has been used before both in Malta and abroad.
This does not mean that someone who claims insanity is free from trial, as it will be up to them and the court to prove their claims to be true beyond any reasonable doubt.
Crimes committed on the pretext of mental health issues will become subject to an investigation by up to three court-appointed experts.
The court-sanctioned investigation determines whether the person charged had a ‘guilty mind’ at the time of the incident.
But the process in court becomes complicated when the appointed experts present their findings for scrutiny by the court of law, with the Attorney General able to challenge and appeal.
Ultimately, the magistrate still has the power to decide whether to entertain these findings or not.
Having a mental illness does not necessarily mean that a person can successfully plea insanity.
According to Sir Anthony Mamo’s notes on Criminal Law, there must be two key elements to determine insanity: the capacity of intellectual discrimination and freedom of will.
Mental illness does not mean that you lacked a guilty mind at the time of the offense and police will be looking for any evidence that suggests Aquilina was acting of his own volition.
In fact, previous cases in Maltese courts have stressed that not every mental illness would lead to a state of insanity as defined by law. Essentially, the defence must prove that when the accused carried out the crimes, they were unable to control the outcome of their actions.
This raises serious questions about the case involving Aquilina. He has claimed to be a “soldier from God” acting upon the orders of “frequencies”, but questions remain as to whether his rape and murder of Dembska were premeditated.
“This is why prevention, ultimately, is what is really required,” Xuereb insisted. “A crisis strategy determined to implement the intervention before catastrophic outcomes become a reality is needed.”
2. So what happens if a person successfully pleads insanity?
An ‘insanity plea’ could see an individual sent to a ‘Forensic Wing’ within Mount Carmel Hospital or Corradino Correctional Facility. There, the offender receives the necessary treatment until his recovery has been deemed satisfactory.
That does not mean that the case will be dead and buried, with the offender still liable to face prison time for their actions.
Even if so, leaving Mount Carmel is not an easy task, with the Mental Health Act allowing experts to indefinitely extend the person’s custody at the hospital.
This was seen in the case of Nicholas Grech, the man responsible for a spree of cat killings in Mosta. Grech successfully pleaded insanity in the charges brought against him in 2014. However, seven years later he is calling for an end to his detention at Mount Carmel Hospital.
The plea was granted following a confirmed diagnosis of schizophrenia, which worsened as Grech stopped taking his medication. He claims to be fully recovered, but it’s now up to court experts to determine.
3. What next?
That remains to be seen. Aquilina is currently still at Mount Carmel Hospital being seen to by experts to determine his current mental wellbeing.
Aquilina is expected to at least be charged with the rape and murder of Dembska. It will then be up to the courts to determine whether that is true.
Still, successfully pleading insanity is not some easy way out for the accused, who could still face life within the walls of Mount Carmel rather than Corradino.
What’s certain is that the debate surrounding whether it was mental health or femicide will rage on across Malta. Maybe the question is: could it be a little bit of both?
What do you think about the issue?