The conviction of a drug dealer that did not rely solely on the testimony of a co-defendant but also on other evidence does not infringe the fair trial. A higher degree of judicial scrutiny must be applied to the assessment of witnesses of co-defendants.
Stephens v. Malta (no. 3) 14.01.2020 (no. 35989/14)
The applicant was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years prison. According to the applicant, the domestic courts convicted him on the basis of the testimony of one of his relatives at the trial, according to which the drugs found on him were supplied by the applicant. That statement was subsequently changed to the court by the defendant stating that he wasn’t recognising the applicant.
According to the Court, a higher degree of scrutiny should be applied to the testimony of co-defendants and accomplices in assessing them and using them as evidence. In the present case, however, the national courts did not convict the applicant solely on the basis of his co-defendant’s testimony but also relied on other evidence, such as the witness’s testimony and the apology of the applicant himself – the defendant.
The ECtHR recalls that the intrinsic purpose of Article 6 is always to contribute to ensuring a fair trial throughout the criminal proceedings and for the determination of the trial as a whole to be fair, it must be examined whether the rights of the defense and defense have been upheld. In the present case, it did not find that the national courts had not given due consideration and importance to the evidence before them. It therefore found no infringement of the fair trial.
The applicant, Mark Charles Kenneth Stephens, is a British national who was born in 1963 and is
detained in Paola (Malta).
The case concerned his allegation that his trial on drug trafficking charges had been unfair.
Mr Stephens was arrested in Spain in 2004 on suspicion of drug trafficking and subsequently
extradited to Malta after a certain G.R.E., whom the police had stopped at Malta International
Airport with cocaine and ecstasy in his bag, had named him as having given him the drugs to carry.
G.R.E. later confirmed his statement on oath before a magistrate.
During the trial, however, G.R.E. changed his statement, saying that the applicant was not the “Mark
Stephens” he knew.
Mr Stephens was found guilty in November 2008 of dealing illegally in cocaine and ecstasy pills and
sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment. His conviction was based on G.R.E.’s pre-trial statements.
His appeal to the Criminal Court and his constitutional redress proceedings were both unsuccessful,
in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
Throughout the proceedings he raised the issue of the admissibility of G.R.E.’s pre-trial statements,
without success. In particular, the courts found that the statements were corroborated by witness
testimony, including the applicant himself and one of his friends, who had confirmed that he had
previously picked up G.R.E. from the airport. The courts also found that the allegation that the
first-instance judge had failed to direct the jury to treat the evidence with caution was not made out.
Relying in particular on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial), Mr Stephens alleged that his trial had been
unfair because G.R.E.’s pre-trial statements had been made without the assistance of a lawyer, when
he had felt pressured into cooperating and had been suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
THE DECISION OF THE COURT…
The Court reiterates that under Article 6, it is not the Court’s role to determine, as a matter of principle, whether particular types of evidence may be admissible. The question which must be answered is whether the proceedings as a whole, including the way in which the evidence was obtained, were fair.
The Court observes that the applicant made reference, for the first time, to his own statements given without legal assistance in his observations and no complaints to that effect were mentioned in his application form. However, despite any misleading submissions by the applicant, the Court notes that the scope of the case before it is limited to whether the admission of G.R.E.’s statements (made in the absence of legal assistance) impaired the fairness of the proceedings against the applicant.
It follows, that it has not been established that the statements, which were also reiterated before the duty magistrate, were made in circumstances which amounted to treatment contrary to Article 3.
That having been established, the only other Convention right concerned with the taking of G.R.E.’s statements is Article 6 § 3 (c).
In doing so the Court will take into account, if appropriate, the minimum rights listed in Article 6 § 3, which exemplify the requirements of a fair trial in respect of typical procedural situations which arise in criminal cases. They can be viewed, therefore, as specific aspects of the concept of a fair trial in criminal proceedings in Article 6 § 1. Those minimum rights guaranteed by Article 6 § 3 – such as for example, the right of everyone “charged with a criminal offence” to be effectively defended by a lawyer, which is one of the fundamental features of a fair trial – are, nevertheless, not ends in themselves: their intrinsic aim is always to contribute to ensuring the fairness of the criminal proceedings as a whole. As to the quality of that evidence, as noted above, it has not been shown that G.R.E. had been pressured into giving his statement, therefore it has not been established that he had not given his statements “freely” When dealing with complaints concerning this issue, although it is not the Court’s task to verify whether the domestic courts made any substantive errors in that assessment, it is nevertheless required to review whether the courts gave reasons for their decisions in respect of any objections concerning the evidence produced. However, the Convention does not require jurors to give reasons for their decisions and, in so far as relevant in the present case, as noted in the preceding paragraph the applicant’s objections, if any, were limited.
Additionally, the statements made by G.R.E. before the trial, to which the jury decided to give a greater evidential value as opposed to his later statements, were supported by other material in favour of the applicant’s conviction. In particular, in its judgment the Court of Criminal Appeal also relied on the testimony of V.S. given during the proceedings and that of the applicant himself. It also explained in detail how the testimony of each witness corroborated that of the other. The Court reiterates that a higher degree of scrutiny should be applied to assessment of statements by co-defendants, because the position in which co-defendants find themselves when testifying is different from that of ordinary witnesses. The same can be said to apply to accomplices tried in different proceedings. Thus, while it is true that the testimony of G.R.E. and V.S. as accomplices had to be approached with caution, the Constitutional Court considered that the trial judge had explained the law to the jurors and he had stated in clear terms that the prosecution’s request to find guilt on the basis of G.R.E.’s sworn statement was legally correct whilst factually it depended on whether the jurors accepted that statement as the truth. In the Constitutional Court’s view the judge had been careful not to influence the jurors, and, the Court of Criminal Appeal had already rejected the applicant’s grievance . As to V.S., the Court notes that the applicant had not taken issue with that testimony neither during the criminal proceedings nor during the constitutional redress proceedings, and there is nothing in the case-file which could lead the Court to consider that the testimony given by V.S. – the crux of which referred to the identification of the applicant as Mark Stephens – had not been considered with caution.
In view of all the above the Court is persuaded that the criminal proceedings against the applicant were “fair” as a whole and that, therefore, there has been no violation of Article 6 § 1 in the present case.