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Inquests, autopsies and exhumations after unnatural death

Dr Stefano Zerafa (1791-1871), the head of the first Forensic Medicine School at the University of Malta.Dr Stefano Zerafa (1791-1871), the head of the first Forensic Medicine School at the University of Malta.

The code of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, published in 1724, prohibited the removal or change of position and the burial of people who died sudden or violent deaths, whether showing the presence of wounds or not, before the holding of an inquest by the court.

In cases of sudden death, corpses were not to be buried before the lapse of 24 hours. According to a decree of a diocesan synod held in Malta in 1709, corpses were buried after the 12 hours to allow the exhalation of the spirit.

On June 6, 1729, it was also decreed that when a post-mortem was ordered by the attending doctor on a patient dying at the Holy Infirmary of Valletta, the autopsy had to be performed by the surgeon on duty or by his assistant. The autopsies of those people who died of sudden death outside the Holy Infirmary were performed in the house of the deceased, and this procedure may have persisted beyond the mid-19th century. The Malta Times of February 1841 and Il Portafoglio Maltese of February 1843 reported instances of these most distressing, post-mortem examinations.

Proclamation XXII of July l, 1814, which defined the duties of the executive police, also mentioned the duties of the Magistrates of Police. In section 16 of this proclamation, it was stated that immediately on a report being made to the magistrate by the police, or other people, of any sudden, violent or unnatural death, the magistrate had to hold an inquest. This had to be held in conjunction with the lieutenants or inhabitants of the locality with the assistance of one or more medical or skilful people. By 1841, the experts were usually the police doctor and a surgeon.

Experts were appointed not only for the assessment of physical injuries and determining the cause of death but also to report on the psychological disturbance suffered by the victim at the hands of an assailant.

Il Portafoglio Maltese of April 1, 1844, reported the case when two doctors were nominated by the court to examine a woman who suffered from a general weakness due to a fright she had experienced after being threatened with a pistol by a seaman. The doctors found that there were no dangerous consequences.

Passengers and members of crews dying on board ships in Maltese harbours were also inspected by the Lazzaretto doctor to ascertain whether they showed any external signs of contagious diseases. Where no such signs were evident, an autopsy was carried out to discover the cause of death. This, however, was not an invariable procedure.

The holding of post-mortems on people brought up dead from the sea was also a routine procedure. However, when cholera appeared in Marseilles in 1834, the Health Department recommended that during this epidemic it was better to suspend this procedure.

Thus, no autopsy was ordered at the inquest held on June 18, 1835, on the body of a woman washed ashore at St George’s Bay. According to a report published in The Malta Government Gazette of February 4, 1835, viewing of the corpse revealed only some branded marks usually observed on the bodies of Turkish women, but gave no hint as to the cause of death.

Although the corpse was in an advanced stage of decomposition, the medical experts found head and chest injuries, and concluded the victim had been beaten and stabbed several times by a pointed, cutting instrument

The body was burned on the spot according to the regulations of the Health Department. The authorities acted in the assumption that the woman had died on board a ship and was thrown overboard.

The promulgation of the Criminal Code in 1854 incorporated the holding of inquests in cases of sudden or violent or suspicious death, or death whereof the cause is unknown. Inquests were also to be held within 24 hours after the execution of a death penalty and the procès-verbal was deposited in the registry of the superior courts.

The same code gave powers to magistrates to order, where necessary, the dissection and the internal examination of a body. Moreover, if the body had been already buried, it became lawful for the magistrate to order the disinterment thereof, with all due precautions, if such disinterment can be effected without prejudice to public health.

The first forensic exhumation after the promulgation of the criminal code was carried out at Ta’ Braxia cemetery in Pietà in June 1870. When some farmers began to cut the corn down in Marsa during harvest time in the second week of June 1870, they found a disintegrating body, which the police surgeon estimated must have been dead for over a week.

The body itself could not be identified, and the clothes were kept for eventual identification. Still, the local doctors decided to allow burial, and not even a post-mortem examination was held, as it was thought the death was accidental.

Meanwhile, the police were informed that Mikiel Schembri from Qormi, aged 16, who had left home on May 30, 1870, had still not returned. Schembri’s mother told the police this was not the first time her son had gone away, but he had always returned home after two or three days.

The woman also asked to see the body found in the field but the police only showed her the victim’s clothes since the body was unidentifiable. The mother recognised the clothes and burst into tears, wanting to know more about her son’s death.

Since Schembri had been an informant of the Qormi police inspector about crime and gambling, Dr Grillet, the police doctor, requested the magistrate to authorise the disinterment of the body so that an autopsy could be carried out.

Although the corpse was in an advanced stage of decomposition, the medical experts found head and chest injuries, and concluded that the victim had been beaten and stabbed several times by a pointed, cutting instrument.

Eventually, Carmelo Camilleri was charged with the murder, and his trial began on August 17, 1870. It took only an hour of deliberation to reach a unanimous guilty verdict. Camilleri was sentenced to death and executed on August 24, 1880.

In December 2001, another exhumation was ordered after the bodies of a woman and her baby were found in a car on the seabed off Ċirkewwa on November 17. Toxicological tests were ordered to ascertain the cause of death

In the past, there were some cases when magistrates failed to order an autopsy to establish whether death was accidental or a result of a homicide. A case in point was the death of Ġużeppi Bonanno, whose corpse was found floating in the sea in Marsa on November 29, 1888.

The magistrate’s inquest established that the 70-year-old man had tumbled into the sea off the wharf’s edge. Death, it was concluded, was due to drowning, and the magistrate declared the case as accidental.

Six years later, a police informant on the Marsa gamblers, who was serving a prison sentence for theft, made a statement to the police and the prison superintendent, that Bonanno had been murdered by Rużar Mizzi. Mizzi was sentenced to death, and as he stood on the trapdoor with the halter round his neck, he said: “I am a guilty man and deserve punishment, but I did not kill Ġużeppi Bonanno.”

Another forensic exhumation was carried out at Gudja cemetery on July 16, 1955, during extensive investigations in connection with the murder of Toninu Aquilina, aged 35, whose corpse was found in an empty well inside the Għallis Tower at Baħar-iċ-Ċagħaq.

The autopsy report showed that Aquilina had been shot in the neck, and a bullet of 6.35mm was extracted from his brain. After the exhumation, material from the corpse was sent for analysis at the Metropolitan Police Laboratory at Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, on May 20, 1955, during a Legislative Assembly session, Prime Minister Dom Mintoff announced that the aid of Scotland Yard was being sought as the local Criminal Investigation Department had no specialised investigators or a forensic laboratory at its disposal.

Eventually, George Terreni was charged with the murder, and after a trial based on circumstantial evidence that lasted 15 days, the longest trial until then, Terreni was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Terreni was released by warrant on September 19, 1964, after an amnesty on the occasion of Malta’s Independence.

During December 1964, Paul Grima of Birżebbuġa, Joseph Scerri of Paola, Carmela Micallef of Żejtun and Maria Assunta Gambin of Siġġiewi died as a result of methyl alcohol poisoning after drinking whisky blended by Joseph Caruana of Żebbuġ.

On January 18, 1965, Magistrate J. Salamone Reynaud ordered the exhumation of the bodies of Grima and Micallef. The exhumations and autopsies were carried out at the Maria Addolorata cemetery, Paola, and at the St Rocque cemetery, Żejtun. The autopsies were held by Prof. G. Xuereb, Dr V. T. Camilleri and Dr V. Tabone. On September 7, 1966, Caruana was found guilty of involuntary homicide of the four victims and sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 100 pounds.

In December 2001, another exhumation was ordered by the inquiring magistrate after the bodies of a woman and her baby were found in a car on the seabed off Ċirkewwa on November 17 of that year. It was reported that toxicological tests were ordered by Magistrate Giovanni Grixti to ascertain the cause of death. The exhumations were carried out at the Mosta cemetery; however, the autopsies were performed at St Luke’s Hospital mortuary.

In the latest exhumation held on July 23, 2013, the autopsy was also carried out in the hospital’s morgue. On July 18, 2013, the bodies of Mario Camilleri and his son Mario were found buried under manure in a field in Qajjenza, Birżebbuġa.

Although Camilleri (the father) had been shot in the head, the first autopsy revealed he had died of a heart attack as the bullet did not penetrate the skull. After a second autopsy, carried out at Mater Dei Hospital mortuary, it was reported that further medical tests had to be carried out.

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