Rosemarie and Oliver Zammit in the courthouse on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos in January 2010. ‘We felt cheated,’ Oliver Zammit says of the verdict.
Bakari Henderson’s family returned to Greece some two weeks ago expecting a verdict in the trial into the young man’s murder on the holiday island of Zakynthos in summer 2017. The trial of the nine suspects accused of Bakari’s murder had started on September 21, at a court in the western port city of Patra.
However, when they arrived, they were told that proceedings had been delayed and would not be completed until November 22. It was an unfortunate development and they ended up returning to Texas without a verdict and having to plan another trip to Greece.
The case is reminiscent of another, dating to 2008, when Doujon Zammit was murdered while he was on vacation on the popular island of Myconos. The 20-year-old had been returning to his hotel after a night of partying when four nightclub employees impersonating police officers accused him of stealing a handbag and started a fight that resulted in the young man’s death. Afterward, his Australian family went through their own judicial ordeal.
His father, Oliver Zammit, flew to Greece when he learned that his son was on life support from a head injury, and made the difficult decision to let him go and donate his organs. For several years, he focused on the trial – possibly hoping that seeing his son’s murderers go to prison would ease his pain.
But Zammit’s experience with the judicial proceedings in Greece, plagued by delays and postponements, was nothing short of disheartening. “We felt as though we’d been slapped in the face,” he tells Kathimerini. “The outcome of the case was a huge insult.”
The trial began just a few days before the expiry of the main suspect’s 18-month maximum pretrial custody period. The other three had been released on bail.
Oliver Zammit felt completely lost in the courtroom, but was grateful for the presence of the man who had received his son’s heart, who was there beside the bereaved father every day, translating the proceedings in the absence of an official translator assigned by the court.
Bakari’s parents expressed the same frustration when the trial into their son’s murder started. The court had brought in a translator only for their testimonies, and when she saw how the parents struggled to understand what was going on she tried to help as best as she could.
There were a lot of nasty and unexpected surprises for the American family. For example, two material witnesses – Bakari’s friends, who were there at the time of the attack outside a bar in the resort of Laganas – saw their testimony date change after certain lawyers claimed they had other cases to attend to.
The bench had accepted their request for a postponement and the two Americans had to cancel their return tickets to be available on the new date. In fact one nearly lost his job as a result. Nevertheless, the family’s lawyers say the trial is moving along very quickly for Greek standards.
The trial into the murder of Doujon Zammit was also swift – at least the first part – and a decision was reached within 10 days, sentencing the main suspect to 22.5 years and other two to 8 and 7.5 years respectively (though they remained free pending their appeals). However, that was just the start of an incredibly arduous process for the family.
They had to return to Greece the following year for the trial of the fourth defendant, who was a minor. The hearing was canceled because of a ferry strike, so the family had to fly back to Australia and then back to Greece again a few weeks later. In total, they made seven trips to Greece – at a significant personal financial cost.
“That’s the problem when you live far away. You still need to respond to the needs of your work and your family; you can’t just freeze everything and move to Greece until the case is settled,” says Oliver Zammit.
The appeal took three years and Zammit was shocked to later discover his own lawyer was responsible for some of the delays. By the end of it all, the defendants were given reduced sentences: The main culprit’s sentence dropped to 18 years and those of the other three to five, which could be bought off.
The main culprit then saw his sentence further reduced to nine years for good behavior and he was eventually released after serving just six years under a law for easing overcrowding at the country’s prisons.
“Our lawyer explained that this is how the system works, but that doesn’t make it any easier. It’s not as if they stole a car; they killed another human being,” says Zammit.
Zammit returned to Greece to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court, but to no avail.
“We felt cheated. The court may have ruled that they were guilty but in effect it was like they were telling us they were innocent. The whole thing took a really big toll on us and after seven years we realized that we just couldn’t take anymore. We had to focus on our family and try to put this terrible experience behind us,” he says.
The trial into Bakari Henderson’s murder has brought it all flooding back for Zammit. “Everyone reacts differently. I don’t know how the Hendersons feel; maybe they also feel pain, anger, and even hate possibly. The only thing I can tell them is that a judicial win will not be a win at all. And this is not just because a guilty verdict in Greece does not mean a real condemnation, but because they will go back home and Bakari’s place at the table will still be empty. The only good thing about it having happened in Greece is that they don’t run the risk of bumping into their son’s killers – who will inevitably be released soon – in the street some day,” he says.