[WATCH] Peppi Azzopardi insists Liam Debono interview tried to create level playing field

Peppi Azzopardi and Simon Schembri’s lawyer, Andy Ellul crossed swords on Xtra as they discussed the gagging order issued by Magistrate Joe Mifsud to stop an interview with Liam Debono being aired on television

Peppi Azzopardi and Andy Ellul on TVM's Xtra
Peppi Azzopardi and Andy Ellul on TVM's Xtra

Peppi Azzopardi has insisted that interviewing Liam Debono would not have any affect on a jury’s decision, but rather provide a level playing field after five months of the young man "being depicted as a monster".

“I believe that an eight-minute interview where the case was not discussed, would not have an affect on the jury, especially considering the fact that during the last five months, Debono has been repeatedly portrayed as a monster in photos, videos and articles,” the veteran Xarabank presenter said in defence of his decision to interview Debono.

Debono stands charged with the attempted murder of police officer Simon Schembri when he ran him over earlier this year. Schembri lost his arm in the harrowing hit-and-run incident.

Azzopardi, together with Schembri's lawyer Andy Ellul, where on TVM's Xtra hosted by Saviour Balzan on Thursday night, discussing the gagging order issued against Xarabank by Magistrate Joe Mifsud. 

Last week, the magistrate ordered the Xarabank producers not to air a recorded interview with Debono.

Ellul stressed that freedom of expression had its limits, insisting that had the interview been aired, the prospective jury, which would be hearing Debono’s case would have been influenced.

However, Azzopardi countered by insisting that the jury was already influenced over the past five months through the various comments made on social media and media platforms against the alleged murderer.

“The jury has repeatedly heard what a monster Liam Debono is, doesn’t that create an impression?” Azzopardi asked.

Ellul pointed out that the gagging order issued by the magistrate was directed to both sides of the case. “The gagging order issued, prevented both Liam Debono and Simon Schembri from conducting interviews and that point must be stressed,” Ellul said. 

Schembri’s lawyer said that he understood that a program like the one presented by Azzopardi relied on audience ratings and sensationalism, but this was not the first time a gagging order was issued. It should not be exaggerated, Ellul insisted.

The lawyer also accused Azzopardi of doing a disservice to the country’s justice system.

In a tit-for-tat, Azzopardi accused Ellul of not believing in the presumption of innocence, which was a mainstay of Malta's criminal law.

Ellul replied by saying that what Azzopardi had said was obviously untrue as he was a defence lawyer for the last decade.

Balzan asked the guests whether the magistrate was too conscious of the media’s involvement in the case.

Azzopardi agreed, claiming that all judges had their own biases. The Xarabank presenter said black people got longer sentences when compared to white people, and more attractive women getting shorter sentences. “These are official statistics and one cannot deny them,” he said. 

On whether the jury system was a good one,  Ellul defended the system, stating that it had been passed down through the ages. “The judge clearly sets out the rules which jurors need to follow. He spends hours laying out the rules ensuring that the verdict given is an honest and appropriate one.”

But Azzopardi had his doubts on the system.

“I am against trial by jury. I can’t understand what competence, people who have no prior experience in the legal system, have in issuing a verdict on a case,” Azzopardi said, adding the jury in this particular case had already been biased against Debono.

“After five months of listening and watching people and the media pitting Debono as a monster, do you think that the jury will go there with an open mind on the case?” Azzopardi asked. 

He then asked Ellul what difference did it make in allowing Schembri to speak to the media and not Debono. 

"It's obvious," Ellul rebutted, “Liam Debono is the accused while Schembri is the victim.”

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