The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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Updated: Trial of former policeman charged with raping colleague begins

Tuesday, 14 March 2023, 13:26 Last update: about 2 years ago

The trial, without a jury, of an ex-policeman accused of repeatedly raping two female colleagues in 2018 has begun before Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera.

The 33-year-old allegedly sexually harassed, repeatedly groped and later raped one female officer on more than one occasion in the kitchenette at the Msida police station where they were both stationed. He was also alleged to have sexually assaulted another in a police car in the months leading up to March 2018.

At the time, the first victim was in a relationship and had a child, while the other was a 19-year-old new recruit.

Inspector Mark Mercieca was the first witness.  He had been approached by one of the victims, who told him that she had been sexually harassed and raped by the defendant at the police station where they worked. A second woman had also come forward and gave a similar account.

A witness said that the abuse had started in October 2017 and that she had told her shift sergeant the next day, but asked him not to speak to the defendant about it out of fear.

The molestation soon escalated to rape, he said. On one occasion, the man had pulled her into a room, taken off her trousers and underwear and raped her. He ejaculated on the floor and cleaned up afterwards.

On another occasion, the female officer and a sergeant had been playing a video game when the defendant began teasing her. After the sergeant had gone home to sleep, the defendant had raped her again.

She had later told the investigation that she had kept quiet about the rape, out of fear of not being believed. The victim had been bullied by her colleagues in the past and would not be taken seriously, he said.

On another occasion, the victim had been in a police car with the defendant who had been driving. His hand would “slip” off the gear lever and on to her thigh, she said. Several incidents of groping and unwanted sexual attention were described.

The inspector had requested an arrest warrant, which was issued by a magistrate and the man was arrested at home in Cospicua.

When interrogated, the defendant claimed that the sexual encounters had been consensual. He later gave a second statement, admitting that he had sex with the victim on two occasions and that the sex had been against her will. The accused was assisted by a lawyer of his choosing during questioning.

The judge asked the inspector whether the accused had received disclosure of the evidence against him. He had, during both questioning sessions, replied the inspector.

Asked about what other officers had said, they had confirmed that the defendant had left at the time described by the victim, but none of them said that they had seen the abuse. They had urged her to file a report, he said.

Cross-examination

In a very loud cross-examination, Edward Gatt attempted to poke holes in the inspector’s account, suggesting that he had been contradicted by other witnesses who testified during the compilation of evidence. Inspector Mercieca stuck to his guns.

The lawyer questioned why Mercieca had investigated the case together with an inspector from the Vice Squad and not the other inspector stationed at Msida. The witness replied that this was because the victim had said she felt she would not be believed, having been bullied by the other inspector.

Gatt suggested that there was an interest in concluding the investigation quickly. “You’re an inspector in one of the districts concerned… Didn’t you feel you had a slight conflict of interest?”

“No. But if I didn’t feel there was truth in the allegations, I would not have issued the charges, because at the end of the day it's my signature on them,” replied Mercieca.

Gatt suggested that there had been bad blood between the victim and another female officer, who is the second alleged victim. He insinuated that the defendant and one of the alleged victims had a “bond” of sorts, arguing that the first victim had only come forward after finding out that the accused had shown interest in the other woman. 

Inspector Mercieca confirmed that the defendant had been warned, by a sergeant, that he was facing prison time, but that this had not happened in his presence.

The court gave strict orders that inspector Mercieca be kept separate from inspector Busuttil, and forbidden from communicating with him until the latter testified - something which could happen later tonight or tomorrow. “I don’t trust anyone, because this is a case completely about the police,” said the judge.

Victim Support Unit officer testifies

Inspector Sylvana Gafa from the police force’s Victim Support Unit also testified today. 

She explained how on 17 March 2017, Inspector Mercieca had informed her that a policewoman wished to make a report of sexual abuse and that he wanted her to be present. During that meeting, the policewoman had told them that she and the defendant had both been stationed at the Msida police station. The previous October, he had started molesting her sexually, first verbally, she said.

The defendant had asked her to perform oral sex on him, leading her into a secluded room, taking off his trousers and trying to force her to perform the sex act. The female officer had refused and resisted, at which point the man had pulled down her trousers and underwear and forced himself on her. The victim had warned him not to try this again, she said.

“He would tease and intimidate her in front of her other colleagues and as time passed, he became possessive,” Gafa said.

“During one night duty, at around 11pm, he had started playing with her hair and speaking in double entendres. He asked her to accompany him to Manoel Island after work and she had refused.”

The third officer on their watch had left work early because he had a court sitting the next day, she said, leaving the victim alone with the defendant. “He pressed her against the wall and tried to kiss her, he was physically stronger than her. Then he raped her.”

After that incident, his behaviour towards her changed, and his harassment and intimidation had increased.

The victim had been asked to accompany two male officers in the car to serve a summons on a known sex worker. But the other male officer was later dropped off, and the individual the officers had been seeking could not be found. The defendant had placed his hand on her thigh several times during the drive, despite her reminding him that he had a girlfriend, she said.

The second victim was severely traumatised and is still going to therapy to this day. She had since left the police force, as she no longer felt comfortable at her workplace, Gafa said.

“[Victim 2] was in a very bad shape. Very agitated, traumatised. Her behaviour showed this. [Victim 1] was a stronger character and her demeanour was more composed.”

The second woman allegedly raped had explained to Gafa that she had spoken up after hearing that he had other victims and hoped to prevent others from enduring the same abuse that she had. “This episode affected her greatly,” said the inspector, confirming that this was the reason why she had come forward.

She would feel judged by her fellow officers and was uncomfortable in the force, said Gafa.

The judge asked Inspector Gafa whether she had ever felt the need to examine the mobile phones belonging to the defendant or the alleged victims. This had not happened, replied the inspector. “She never claimed that the accused would contact her by phone.”

Inspector corrects lawyer over massage remark

Gafa was cross-examined by Edward Gatt, who suggested that the day after the assault, the victim had told the defendant that she needed a massage. “She didn’t tell him she needed a massage,” replied Gafa. “She said her back was hurting and he suggested that he give her a massage. She did nothing wrong in talking about her back pain. There was nothing sexual involved.”

It emerged that the victim had not told the Victim Support Unit about having been bullied at the Msida police station and had asked to be transferred after the incidents involving the defendant.

Gatt told the witness that all the other officers at the police station had told the court that their relationship with the victim had been strained after she had filed her report, and had started avoiding her “because none of them wanted to go through the same experience as the defendant,” he said.

“She explained that they thought that she would start reporting them for everything they did.”

The lawyer asked whether it appeared incongruent for the woman to claim that her rapist was acting possessively. “No. Because this is not only what she said. After raping her, he would insult her and act possessively. This was in addition to the rape,” Gafa replied.

Answering a question from the judge, who asked whether the victim had screamed or tried to draw attention to the fact that she was being raped, Gafa said that her understanding was that the victim had not screamed during the rape, even though another officer had been present in the police station, asleep. 

Gatt suggested that the second hadn’t spoken up at first and had only reported being raped after the other victim had told her superiors that she had been raped.

“She reported him after finding out that he was doing the same things to the other officer…but it doesn’t mean she wanted this to happen... It is not easy to report these things,” Gafa replied.

Inspector to remain in isolation

Lawyer Angele Vella from the Office of the Attorney General, insisted that the alleged victims testify today to minimise the trauma of having to revisit the incident. This meant that the second police Inspector who investigated the case, Inspector Joseph Busuttil would have to be kept in isolation until tomorrow. “With your decision, the inspector will sleep here,” warned the court, but the prosecutors replied that this was “not a problem.”

The defence lawyers, Edward Gatt and Franco Debono objected, saying that this did not make sense, logistically.

But Vella was resolute. “I am obliged to protect the victims, and immediately after their testimony, the site visit will be held.”

Gatt asked for the defence’s needs to also be respected. “I will be clear. I am not going to spend nights here. I need to rest and expect respect.”

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera pointed out that in any case the site visit to the police station would have to take place at night.

The trial will resume at 2:30pm.

Lawyers Angele Vella and Darlene Grima are prosecuting on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General.

The defendant is being represented by lawyers Edward Gatt and Franco Debono, while lawyers Lara Dimitriyevic and Stephanie Caruana are appearing for the victims.

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