The Alfred Christian case
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The Alfred Christian case

When the law prohibited the testimony of the accused

The lower part of St Dominic Street, Valletta, where Christian lived.

The lower part of St Dominic Street, Valletta, where Christian lived.

On February 27, 1909, Alfred Christian, the manager and owner of an English bank, appeared before the Court of Judicial Police charged with having, at Valletta, repeatedly committed acts that offend morals and modesty in a place exposed to public view. The charge, however, did not include details regarding the dates, time, place or the real nature of the offence.

Defence counsel Dr Arturo Mercieca, who was eventually appointed Chief Justice.Defence counsel Dr Arturo Mercieca, who was eventually appointed Chief Justice.

Christian, a British national, lived with his family in St Dominic Street, Valletta, and it seemed that he was not getting along with some of his neighbours because he alleged that meat and fish for cats was being thrown in front of his door. Annoyed by this situation, in December 1908, he lodged a complaint at the Valletta police station alleging that Paolina Grech, who lived in the house opposite, was throwing rubbish in front of his door. Later that day, Grech was warned by the police that littering the street was against the law.

The relationship between these two families worsened, and on January 22, 1909, Giuseppe Grech, Paolina’s husband, went to the police station to lodge a complaint against Christian. Paolina had alleged that Christian had called her “a bloody ċuwċ”, and according to the Grechs this was an insult. But to his surprise, Giuseppe Grech met Christian at the police station as the latter had gone to lodge another complaint against the Grechs.

Paolina became furious when she heard about Christian’s complaint and so she surprised her husband with another story about Christian. Paolina alleged that besides calling her a bloody ċuwċ, Christian had been exposing himself in an indecent manner for almost 15 years. She also alleged that on multiple occasions Christian indecently exposed himself while he was in his bedroom. Another allegation was that while she was in her balcony Christian had exposed his genital parts and made gestures as if he meant to say “these are for you”. According to Paolina, Christian had also been making such gestures to other women.

Upon hearing these allegations Giuseppe Grech returned to the police station and lodged another more serious complaint against Christian. Repeating what his wife had just told him, Giuseppe told Sergeant P. Cassar that Paolina did not divulge this information earlier because she was inclined to forgive him to avoid appearing as a witness in court.

Eventually Christian was charged with having committed acts in Valletta that offended morals and modesty in a place exposed to public view, a crime liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months and to a fine up to £20. In the court summons, Christian was required to produce before the Magistrate’s Court such witnesses and other proofs in his defence as he may deem necessary.

The statue of Justice at the Castellania Court in Merchants Street, Valletta. Was justice served in Alfred Christian’s case?The statue of Justice at the Castellania Court in Merchants Street, Valletta. Was justice served in Alfred Christian’s case?

When he appeared in court before Magistrate Annibale Fiteni on February 27, 1909, Christian was assisted by Dr Arturo Mercieca. 

In her testimony, Paolina Grech detailed the acts of impropriety allegedly committed by Christian, which she said continued for 15 years until about two months before the court hearing. Five women summoned by the police corroborated Grech’s testimony; however, no attempt was made by the prosecution to establish the date and time of the alleged offences. In those days, evidence by witnesses was given in Maltese, but proceedings were conducted in Italian. For this reason, the court appointed A.P. Hare as an interpreter.

The case was put off to March 8 for the hearing of the counsel for the defence. In his defence Dr Mercieca said that at the time the alleged misconduct was said to have started the accused had just married, and during the subsequent years he was living on the most affectionate terms with his wife and children. But as the law stood at that time, neither the accused nor his wife could be heard to give evidence.

The court delivered its judgment on March 13, 1909, and Christian was sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment and a fine of £10. In support of the defence plea that the acts took place in Christian’s house, the court referred to a decision of His Majesty’s Criminal Court of November 4, 1902 – The Police vs Alfredo Grixti. In this sentence, the court held that there had been an offence against decency when a man, while in his balcony, committed indecent acts in the presence of a woman while she was in her balcony, opposite his house.

Paolina alleged that besides calling her a bloody ċuwċ, Christian had been exposing himself in an indecent manner for almost 15 years

In his autobiography The Making and Unmaking of a Maltese Chief Justice, referring to Christian’s case, Sir Arturo Mercieca wrote: “In March of that year there occurred a tragic case that haunted me throughout my professional practice. A.C., manager and owner of an English bank, who was my client, was sentenced by the Inferior Court, Magistrate Fiteni sitting, to 15 days’ imprisonment and a fine of £10. He had been charged with outraging public decency. … A.C. was not generally liked by the Maltese, [as] was shown by the fact that after the sentence a crowd followed him in the street in a hostile mood, and might have attacked him had I not accompanied him as far as the bank, after I had given notice of appeal. Some of my colleagues criticised me for having gone out of court with him. I retorted that just as I would have shared with him a victory, so I should not abandon him in his defeat.”

Dr Mercieca hoped for a favourable outcome from the petition of appeal submitted on March 18. According to the defence, the magistrate was not legally correct by declaring that the room of Christian’s house, where it was alleged that the offences took place, was a place open to the public, as the law provided. Dr Mercieca also pointed out that even if the facts were proven, the degrading penalty of imprisonment could have been avoided by a way of a fine.

The 1912 Royal Commission reportThe 1912 Royal Commission report

Christian was so appalled by the sentence and the fact that he did not have a voice in the court proceedings that some days later he committed suicide at his office. He shot himself in the head and was eventually buried at Ta’ Braxia cemetery. 

On August 12, 1911, a Royal Commission presided by Sir Francis Mowatt was appointed to inquire into the finances, economic condition and judicial procedure of Malta. The other members of the commission were Russell Rea and Sir Mackenzie Chalmers, a judge of the county courts.

 Three months later, Cecil N. Goodhall, on behalf of the Alfred Christian family, wrote to the Undersecretary of State for the Colonies requesting the Royal Commission to inquire about the Christian case.

Goodhall’s request was accepted; however, in the commission’s report, published in May 1912, it was made clear that the case was being investigated solely with the view of examining the procedure followed, and to determine how far the court procedure was defective. It was also understood that the commission was not in any way retrying the case.

But by the time the report was published steps had already been taken to amend the law making accused persons and their wives competent, though not compellable, witnesses in criminal cases. These concessions had already been introduced in England in the early 18th century when the Prisoners’ Counsel Act was passed and gave the right to full defence to the accused. 

Act IX of 1911, which amended the Maltese criminal law, stated that: “The party charged or accused shall, at his own request, be admitted to give evidence on oath immediately after the close of the prosecution, saving the case where the necessity of his evidence shall rise also at a subsequent stage, or the court sees fit to vary the order of the evidence; and such party may be cross-examined by the prosecution, notwithstanding that such cross-examination would not tend to incriminate him as to the offence charged.”

The Law Courts at the Auberge d’Auverne in Kingsway (now Republic Street), VallettaThe Law Courts at the Auberge d’Auverne in Kingsway (now Republic Street), Valletta

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