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When the murder of a priest meted a cruel death penalty

What used to be Triq il-Għaqba.

What used to be Triq il-Għaqba.

Although priests in the past were among the most revered people in Malta, two priests were murdered on the island in the 19th century. Dun Alwiġ Decelis, aged 75, lived in Triq tal-Għaqba, the uphill road from Lija cemetery to Naxxar. In spite of his age the priest celebrated Mass at the village’s parish church every morning.

On February 6, 1806, Decelis did not turn up at the church, and his nephew, another priest, became worried as the previous day his uncle had seemed in good health, so it was highly unlikely that he was confined to his bed. After Mass the nephew went straight home to tell his father, Pietru (Decelis’s brother), about the matter and the two hurried to the house of the old priest. Repeated knocks on the door yielded no result so Pietru asked a boy to enter from the back yard and unlock the main door.

Naxxar parish church where Dun Alwiġ celebrated Mass every morning.Naxxar parish church where Dun Alwiġ celebrated Mass every morning.

Pietru entered his brother’s house and called him several times but no one answered the calls, and so he proceeded to the bedroom where, to his horror, he saw Decelis lying dead on the floor. The room where the corpse was found was in great disorder, suggesting a struggle had taken place. Pietru immediately sent word to the luogotenente (lieutenant) of Naxxar who was in charge of public order in that locality.

Meanwhile, the doctor who examined the deceased certified that the cause of death was apoplexy and, with no foul play suspected, it seemed a closed case. The doctor, however, remarked that he had noticed bruises on the neck of the deceased.

However, when Pietru searched his brother’s house he realised some valuable objects were missing and he insisted with the luogotenente that his brother’s death was not due to natural causes and should be investigated further. Pietru said he was certain it was theft which had led to the murder. He also added that three weeks previously his brother had told him someone had broken into his house and locked him in the bedroom but nothing had been stolen on that occasion.

The luogotenente was duty bound to inform the commissioner of police about Decelis’s death, and when the latter read the report he concluded that a murder had been committed. A few days later a government notice was issued offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer. Meanwhile, the lieutenant of Balzan received confidential information that led to the arrest of Ġużeppi Camilleri, Salvu Grech, Ġanni Magri, Giovanni Scerri and Ġanni Sciberras.

The arrested men all denied the allegations made against them but still they were not released. While in police custody, Grech was informed that his father had died suddenly and, on hearing the news, he decided to talk. In his statement to the police Grech said that, about three weeks before the death of Decelis, he had been approached by Borg, Camilleri and Magri to join them in a burglary. Grech said that at first he had not been interested in the job, but then he accepted. According to Grech, they had broken into Decelis’s house one night but the burglary was aborted as Decelis had heard them entering his house and started crying for help. They had locked the priest in his bedroom.

The Floriana glasis where executions were held.The Floriana glasis where executions were held.

Grech added that on February 5, 1806, together with the other thieves he had robbed Decelis of 600 scudi and several valuables. He also said Scerri had grabbed the priest by the neck and choked him to death.

After this statement some doctors were asked to re-examine the cause of the priest’s death but Decelis had been buried for some days and an autopsy had not been carried out. Although the exhumation was not carried out the doctors concluded the priest had been murdered. In their report the doctors said that the marks on the neck mentioned earlier were sufficient to prove strangulation.

His head was cut off and later placed in Triq il-Għaqba, where the murder had been committed

Grech’s testimony was not proof enough to convict the others so the investigating police devised an ingenious plan to incriminate Scerri who had since been imprisoned for another crime.

Grech was permitted a contact visit with Scerri in the prison yard and the two spoke about the priest’s murder. During this conversation Scerri talked about how the priest died in his hands, which was sufficiently incriminating to convict him. Two prison guards, hidden close to where the meeting took place, also heard Scerri implicate the others in the crime.

When the police went to arrest Magri they learnt that he had fled to Sicily and had paid 40 scudi to the captain of the small sailing coaster S.S. Crocifisso to smuggle him there. However, when later the captain was questioned by the police, he promised he would bring Magri back to Malta.

The S.S. Crocifisso sailed regularly between Malta and Sicily, and when the captain was again in Sicily he sent word to Magri that he had an important message from someone in Malta. Magri lost no time in going on board the boat but, when he was in the captain’s cabin, the boat sailed out of the Sicilian port. It was too late to go ashore when Magri realised the boat had left. Back in Malta, Magri was arrested and kept in custody with the others. Eventually they were all charged with theft and murder.

The trial (not with a jury) of Grech, Magri, Camilleri and Scerri began in November 1806 and dragged on for about 12 months. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Sciberras was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in connection with the attempted theft from the house of the deceased.

Sir Alexander Ball, who authorised a new trial.Sir Alexander Ball, who authorised a new trial.

After the convictions, Dr Filippo Torregiani, on behalf of the defence, submitted a petition to the civil commissioner of Malta for a retrial and with more judges since the first trial had been held before two judges, namely Dr Stefano Zammit and Dr Stefano Assenza. Civil Commissioner Sir Alexander Ball upheld the request and appointed Dr Vincenzo Caruana Zerafa, Dr Giuseppe Borg Olivier and Dr Salvatore Scifo to hear the case. In the second trial the accused were found guilty and Scerri and Magri were sentenced to death. Grech and Magri received a life sentence, however, they were not told that their sentence had been changed.

In those days executions were held at Floriana and after the trial the four condemned men were held in the Castellania prison in St John’s Street, Valletta, from where they were taken to the gallows in a long procession led by the head of police.

On September 18, 1807, Scerri and Camilleri were executed in Floriana. It was after these two executions that Grech and Magri were told they had received a life sentence. Moreover, when Scerri’s body was removed from the gibbet to be buried in a pit, his head was cut off and later placed in Triq il-Għaqba, where the murder had been committed. The decapitation was part of the punishment. This was the only case of a beheading after an execution since 1800.

Nineteen years later another murder was committed in Triq il-Għaqba and the murderer received the same sentence. On May 11, 1825, Ġużeppi Grech was found guilty of murdering his brother Salvatore. After the death penalty was pronounced, the Court ordered that after the hanging, Grech’s right hand was to be cut off and placed where the corpse of his brother was found.

The procession route from the Castellania prison to the Floriana glasis.The procession route from the Castellania prison to the Floriana glasis.

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