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Winnie Monsod

The impact of the Webb decision

December 21, 2010 7:45pm
(Following is the transcript of the segment "Analysis by Winnie Monsod" which aired on News on Q on December 17, 2010. Prof. Winnie Monsod is the resident analyst of News on Q which airs weeknights at 9:30 p.m. on Q Channel 11.)

Last week, we looked at some of the arguments for and against the acquittal of Hubert Webb and others of the “Vizconde Massacre” and said that it boiled down to whether we believed the testimonial evidence of the prosecution witnesses headed by Jessica Alfaro, or the testimonial and documentary evidence of the defense witnesses presented by Webb et al. including official documents from the Philippine and United States governments.

Three days ago, the decision of the Supreme Court (SC) – by a vote of seven to four, with four justices inhibiting themselves – was to acquit Webb and his co-accused, who are now all free. The decision has raised even more questions, which we will now try to analyze and answer.

Q1. Does the decision mean that justice is only for the rich? This is the accusation of Lauro Vizconde, widower and surviving father of the victims. Apparently, the basis of his accusation is that the accused (the convicts later acquitted) are, for the most part, wealthy – except for Gerardo Biong, who was a policeman – or at least definitely not poor, and that there was "bayaran" in the case, in other words, they bought the favorable decision (of acquittal).

A1. I cannot speak for all the SC justices who were part of either the voting majority or the minority. But there are two justices whose integrity I can vouch for: Justice Conchita Carpio Morales and Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, who both not only voted for acquittal, but also wrote a concurring opinion and a separate concurring opinion, respectively.

But other than that, Vizconde's charge does not seem to be supported by the history of the case, because if money could really buy the decision in this case, why were these wealthy people in jail for 15 years?

By the way, all over the world, the contention that “justice is only for the rich” is accepted almost all over the world in another sense than that which Vizconde uses it: the sense that except for “pro bono” cases where legal services are done for free, only the rich can afford the best lawyers. In that sense, one can say that had Webb not gotten the best lawyers, he and his co-accused (fellow convicts in the Vizconde case) would still be rotting in jail.

Q2. Does the decision of the Supreme Court, as headlined in the media, imply that Webb and his co-accused may not be innocent?

A2. Unang-una, kailangan natin maintindihan na dalawa lang ang (First of all, we should understand that there are only two possible) verdicts that can be pronounced by any court of law, whether in the Philippines or abroad: either Guilty or Not Guilty. No court in the world will rule or pronounce a person innocent.

At totoo din na pwede na (Keep in mind that) a court may pronounce a defendant “not guilty” even if the defendant actually committed a crime. For example, nag-confess na ang akusado, pero hindi inadmit ng korte, for some reason or another, ang confession na iyan. Pero dito sa kaso na ito, kung basahin lamang ang decision ng Korte, halatang-halata kung ano ang iniisip nila. Tungkol sa kung kapani-paniwala ang testimony ni Jessica Alfaro, inexplain ni J. Roberto Abad, ponente ng decision, na para maging kapani-paniwala ang testimony ng isang witness, kailangan dalawang criteria must be met: isa ay na ang witness ay credible, meaning to say na basehan sa experience sa kanya, she can be trusted to tell the truth. At ikalawa, kailang ang istorya niya ay also kapani-paniwala, hindi pwersado, at walang mga inconsistencies. Diniscuss ito ni Abad sa kanyang ponensiya, at sabi niya:

(For example, the accused makes a confession but this was not admitted into evidence by the court for some reason or another. But if you read the SC decision in the Vizconde case, it is quite clear how the justices appreciated the facts. As regards the credibility of the testimony of Jessica Alfaro, the ponente of the decision, Justice Roberto Abad, explained that for witness testimony to be believable it must meet two criteria – first, that the witness herself should credible, meaning to say based on previous experience with her, she can be trusted to tell the truth; secondly, her narration of the events must also be believable, not under duress, and free from inconsistencies. Abad discussed this in his ponencia, where he said:)

“Ultimately, Alfaro’s quality as a witness and her inconsistent, if not inherently unbelievable, testimony cannot be the positive identification that jurisprudence acknowledges as sufficient to jettison a denial and an alibi.”

Ang tanong pa ni Abad (He also asked): “Will the Court send the accused to spend the rest of their lives in prison on the testimony of an NBI asset who proposed to her handlers that she take the role of the witness to the Vizconde massacre that she could not produce?”

Si Justice Conchita Carpio Morales naman, ang sabi ay hindi niya maintindihan kung bakit tinanggap at hindi pinagsuspetsahan ng lower courts yung testimony ni Alfaro. Tungkol naman kay Webb, ito ang sabi niya (For her part, Justice Carpio Morales said she could not understand how the lower courts could accept without suspicion Alfaro’s testimony. As for Webb, she had this to say):

“His travel and immigration documents showing his departure from the Philippines and arrival in the U.S.A., not to mention the testimonial and documentary evidence on his activities while in the U.S.A. between March 9, 1991 and October 26, 1992, deserve full credit. If half the world away could not even be considered to be ‘so far removed from the crime scene’ as to evince the physical impossibility of actual presence, then the defense of alibi can only be appreciated when an accused lands in a different planet."

O ano, mga kapuso, sa palagay niyo ba, basehan sa sinabi ng Korte Suprema, na pwedeng guilty sina Webb? (Do you think – based on what the Supreme Court had said – Webb et al. are guilty?)

Q3. May impact ba ang Webb decision sa justice system natin? (Does the Webb decision have an impact on the Philippine justice system?)

A3. Doon sa separate concurring opinion ni Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, nilista niya ang maraming examples of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct doon sa kaso ni Webb, that according to her, violated the rights of the accused – suppressing evidence, mishandling evidence, not preserving evidence. Sa palagay ko, hindi lang yan problema sa kaso ni Webb, kundi sakit yan talaga ng ating judicial system na dapat magamot na – lalo na itong practice na paggamit ng mga police o NBI assets na maging testigo. Sana mapakinggan natin ang sinabi ni Justice Sereno – kasi habang hindi natin maggamot ag mga practices na ito, the miscarriage of justice will continue to be the rule rather than the exception.

(In her separate concurring opinion, Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno listed down numerous examples of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct committed in Webb’s criminal case, that according to her, violated the rights of the accused – suppressing evidence, mishandling evidence, and not preserving evidence. In my view, these problems do not only plague the case of Webb, but rather these are endemic in our judicial system and must be purged – particularly this practice of using police or NBI assets as witnesses. Let the advice of Justice Sereno be heard – because as long as we do not do away with these bad practices, the miscarriage of justice will continue to be the rule rather than the exception.)