Sunday, March 13, 2005

Acquittal by inaction

Acquittal by inaction


Posted 00:22am (Mla time) Mar 13, 2005
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service



Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 13, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer


MANY of us will recall that at the start of the trial of Joseph Estrada before the Sandiganbayan, one of his lawyers was said to have bragged that he could delay the proceedings by at least five years. I never heard him deny the report later, which could mean that it was true.

Assuming that it was merely an invention of some imaginative reporter, subsequent facts are nevertheless validating that arrogant boast. The information against Estrada and his son Jinggoy was filed in 2001, and it is now 2005. Erap's counsel has just started his defense after filing countless dilatory motions.

Erap has been allowed, among other privileges, to transfer from his original detention house in Laguna to the Veterans Memorial Medical Center, to consult a faith healer in Caloocan (under heavy security including a hovering helicopter), to visit his mother, and to go to Hong Kong for surgery on his knees. This could have been performed here by our own competent surgeons but he apparently did not trust his own countrymen.

The case of Lucio Tan is another but similar matter. It began in 1993 with his prosecution for tax evasion in the amount of P25.6 billion. The cases were dismissed in 1999 but the government went to the Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial. At his arraignment recently, the prosecution brought three truckloads of documentary evidence that it hoped the defense would admit under a stipulation of facts. Tan's lawyer refused and insisted that every single document, most of which he had not yet even seen, be pre-marked.

The pre-marking of the voluminous documentary evidence of the government would take at least six months, according to the prosecution, before the trial could begin. Conceivably, the case could last for months and even drag for years, and would surely be appealed to the superior courts, including the Supreme Court, before it was finally decided. The trial judge has, however, ordered the marking to be done in the course of the trial, which may or may not speed up the proceedings.

It may be terminated earlier, of course, if Tan is acquitted by the trial court and can invoke the protection against double jeopardy if the government tries to prolong it. Such an outcome would at least conform to the constitutional policy for the speedy disposition of cases before judicial and administrative bodies.

All this brings to mind the unjustified delay in the decision of many other cases despite the mandate of the Constitution. The most obvious example is the Imelda cases that were begun under the Aquino administration after Edsa I in 1986. Many of these cases are still sleeping in the Sandiganbayan while the Merry Widow is still enjoying her life as if we were still under martial law with the courts still terrified of her.

In one memorable and exceptional case, she was found guilty of graft and corruption by the Sandiganbayan in a decision written by the late Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena. She appealed to the Supreme Court, where the Third Division chaired by Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa himself, affirmed her conviction.

Nothing daunted, she moved for referral of the case to the banc, which not only accepted it but also reversed the Division and the Sandiganbayan. Imelda's acquittal was written by Purisima, with Bellosillo, Melo, Puno, Kapunan, Mendoza, Martinez and Quisumbing concurring. The dissenters were Narvasa, Regalado, Davide, Romero and Panganiban, with Vitug for remanding the case to the Sandiganbayan.

The referral was itself a violation of SC Circular No. 2-89 based on the rule that the Supreme Court en banc is not an appellate body that can review the decisions of the Divisions, which act for and by authority of the Court en banc. But the case of the still influential former First Lady was considered an exception in the sound discretion of the Supreme Court.

According to a recent research, there are still 38 civil and criminal cases pending against Imelda in the Sandiganbayan. All of these were filed shortly after the overthrow of the Marcos misrule and the take-over of the Cory Aquino government 19 years ago. But they have yet to be decided despite the inexplicable delay.

The Court has in some cases held against Imelda, as when it ruled that that the secret negotiations between the Marcos heirs and the government regarding the disposition of their alleged ill-gotten was violative of the right to information on matters of public concern. And the high tribunal has also affirmed that the $684 million transferred by the Swiss government to an escrow account in the PNB belongs to the Republic and not Imelda and her children.

But there are still many cases that wait to be decided for or against Imelda, and also her relatives and close associates during martial law. Considering the inordinately long period during which their cases have been slumbering in our courts, including the Supreme Court, the suspicion is growing that the delay in their decision is caused not by mere neglect or indolence of the judges. Some say there could be a deliberate design to in effect acquit these privileged accused by simply not acting on their conviction.

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