Vizconde-Webb courtroom saga: INJUSTICE FOR ALL

The Philippine Supreme Court (SC), in a very daring move, reversed the Court of Appeals and Regional Trial Court decisions and acquitted the accused, Hubert Webb et al, for the murder and rape of Carmela Vizconde and the murder of her mother and sister.

This does not prove that there is justice in the Philippines. On the contrary, it gives steel-clad proof that Justice is non-existent in this country.

A reading of the SC decision will immediately show that the evidence against the accused were tenuous as it was based solely on the testimony of a drug-addict “asset” or informant of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The SC stated:

Was Alfaro an ordinary subdivision girl who showed up at the NBI after four years, bothered by her conscience or egged on by relatives or friends to come forward and do what was right? No. She was, at the time she revealed her story, working for the NBI as an “asset,” a stool pigeon, one who earned her living by fraternizing with criminals so she could squeal on them to her NBI handlers. She had to live a life of lies to get rewards that would pay for her subsistence and vices.
According to Atty. Artemio Sacaguing, former head of the NBI Anti-Kidnapping, Hijacking, and Armed Robbery Task Force (AKHAR) Section, Alfaro had been hanging around at the NBI since November or December 1994 as an “asset.” She supplied her handlers with information against drug pushers and other criminal elements…

When Alfaro seemed unproductive for sometime, however, they teased her about it and she was piqued. One day, she unexpectedly told Sacaguing that she knew someone who had the real story behind the Vizconde massacre. Sacaguing showed interest. Alfaro promised to bring that someone to the NBI to tell his story. When this did not happen and Sacaguing continued to press her, she told him that she might as well assume the role of her informant. Sacaguing testified thus:

ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. Atty. Sacaguing, how did Jessica Alfaro become a witness in the Vizconde murder case? Will you tell the Honorable Court?
x x x x
A. She told me. Your Honor, that she knew somebody who related to her the circumstances, I mean, the details of the massacre of the Vizconde family. That’s what she told me, Your Honor.
ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. And what did you say?
x x x x
A. I was quite interested and I tried to persuade her to introduce to me that man and she promised that in due time, she will bring to me the man, and together with her, we will try to convince him to act as a state witness and help us in the solution of the case.
x x x x
Q. Atty. Sacaguing, were you able to interview this alleged witness?
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. No, sir.
ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. Why not?
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. Because Jessica Alfaro was never able to comply with her promise to bring the man to me. She told me later that she could not and the man does not like to testify.
ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. All right, and what happened after that?
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. She told me, “easy lang kayo, Sir,” if I may quote, “easy lang Sir, huwag kayong…”
COURT:
How was that?
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. “Easy lang, Sir. Sir, relax lang, Sir, papapelan ko, papapelan ko na lang ‘yan.”
x x x x
ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. All right, and what was your reaction when Ms. Alfaro stated that “papapelan ko na lang yan?”
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. I said, “hindi puwede yan, kasi hindi ka naman eye witness.”
ATTY. ONGKIKO:
Q. And what was the reply of Ms. Alfaro?
WITNESS SACAGUING:
A. Hindi siya nakakibo, until she went away.
(TSN, May 28, 1996, pp. 49-50, 58, 77-79)

Quite significantly, Alfaro never refuted Sacaguing’s above testimony.

It is amazing that Judge Amelita Tolentino threw out 132 out of 142 pieces of evidence that the defense presented yet regarded Jessica Alfaro as if she was an innocent angel from Heaven.

Judge Tolentino and the Court of Appeals justices also denied the alibi of the prime accused, Hubert Webb, that he was in the US at the time of the crime. Both courts dismissed official documents from the US embassy, the State department and the airlines, including the pay slip and other US and Philippine documents, that Mr. Webb was indeed in the US during the period in question.

The reasoning of the Judge and the Justices as well as the prosecuting lawyers was that those documents could easily be faked and/or the officials were bribed.

Obviously, the Judge, prosecuting lawyers and the justices were very familiar with corruption. But surely, wouldn’t it be cheaper to bribe Alfaro and other unbelievable witnesses like the maid and the security guard instead? In fact, wouldn’t it be cheaper to bribe an RTC judge than US government officials?

The SC stated:

The trial court and the Court of Appeals expressed marked cynicism over the accuracy of travel documents like the passport as well as the domestic and foreign records of departures and arrivals from airports. They claim that it would not have been impossible for Webb to secretly return to the Philippines after he supposedly left it on March 9, 1991, commit the crime, go back to the U.S., and openly return to the Philippines again on October 26, 1992. Travel between the U.S. and the Philippines, said the lower courts took only about twelve to fourteen hours.

If the Court were to subscribe to this extremely skeptical view, it might as well tear the rules of evidence out of the law books and regard suspicions, surmises, or speculations as reasons for impeaching evidence. It is not that official records, which carry the presumption of truth of what they state, are immune to attack. They are not. That presumption can be overcome by evidence. Here, however, the prosecution did not bother to present evidence to impeach the entries in Webb’s passport and the certifications of the Philippine and U.S.’ immigration services regarding his travel to the U.S. and back. The prosecution’s rebuttal evidence is the fear of the unknown that it planted in the lower court’s minds. (Emphasis supplied)

NBI’s MODUS OPERANDI

The crime happened in June 1991. As usual with Philippine police and the NBI, they could not come up with forensic evidence and had to rely on assets or stool pigeons to point them to probable suspects. When suspects are nabbed, they are tortured until they confess.

The first suspect was the Barroso “akyat bahay” gang, a small-time criminal group that robs houses. With enough torture, some of the gang members confessed. Thankfully, an enlightened judge of the Makati Regional Court dismissed the confessions as a fabrication by the police.

Four years after the crime, the police and the NBI faced a dead wall. But behold, in April 1995, Jessica Alfaro, the NBI’s own asset, even a “darling of an asset” as pointed out by the SC, announced to the Filipinos that she would reveal all the juicy details of the Vizconde massacre. By this time, the Filipino masses had been impatient and frustrated over the government’s apparent inutile attempts at finding the culprits. Two movies had already been shown about the Vizconde Massacre. Former President Cory Aquino’s daughter, the present Presidential Sister, starred in the first movie.

PERFECT TYPECASTING

When Jessica Alfaro appeared on the scene and pointed to a Senator’s son, Hubert Webb and other rich boys as the culprits, the Filipino masses were ready and eager to have a “proper” ending for this real life soap opera. After seeing Carmela Vizconde, portrayed by popular actresses, raped and killed twice in the movies, the Filipino masses wanted Revenge.

It also helped that Alfaro was quite pretty. In fact, a movie, The Jessica Alfaro story, was immediately made starring sexy popular actress Alice Dixson.

I had not seen any of these movies, but if a movie was made on the life of Jessica Alfaro, recounting the story Jessica told the prosecutors / police, then this could have only concretized in the minds of the Filipino masses that Alfaro was telling the truth. Why was this movie allowed to be shown at the start of the hearings? Was it not sub judice?

It is also a coincidence that the accused Hubert Webb’s father was a basketball superstar and actor and another suspect, Tony Boy Lejano, is the son of former actress Pinky De Leon, sister of movie superstar Christopher de Leon. While Hubert and Tony Boy were not actors, their parents were, which made the whole affair showbiz-like.

Perhaps in the minds of the masses, it was Carmela Vizconde (as Kris Aquino and Vina Morales) and Jessica Alfaro (as Alice Dixson) vs the Rich Bad Boys (the Webbs and De Leons of showbiz). (Incidentally, in the 1970s, Pinky De Leon went publicly against the marriage of his brother to Philippine movie’s number one superstar Nora Aunor, the idol of the masses. The De Leons and the Webbs are of Caucasian descent while Lauro Vizconde was of the kayumanggitype.)

While the trial was going on, Radio-TV host Renato Cayetano, who was also the presidential Legal Counsel and Vice Chair of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC), made it a point to be interviewed every so often by the media. The PACC took jurisdiction over the investigation in June 1993. The masses voted Cayetano to the Senate in 1998 perhaps due to his media exposure from his radio-TV show and frequent appearance in the news regarding the Vizconde case. Even after he became senator, Cayetano continued giving his “running commentary” on the Vizconde case.

It was all show biz.

MIND-NUMBING TRIAL BY PUBLICITY

The Vizconde Massacre was in all the papers for years. It was made into movies. As the SC noted, the case “had been reported in the media with dizzying details”. And that was BEFORE Alfaro came into the picture. With a son of a former basketball superstar-turned-senator and a nephew of a an “established” movie star cast as the “contra- bidas” (villains), the media coverage could be expected to be so much more than “dizzying”. It could be mind-numbing, which was precisely what the prosecutors, the police/NBI, the judge and whoever else was behind this rigmarole wanted. They wanted the people to be so numb that they would just applaud the judge’s decision without giving it a second thought.

I remember when Judge Tolentino’s decision was read out aloud in court and broadcast all over the media networks in January 2000. I thought that it was the most idiotic reasoning I ever heard. To somehow distract the people’s attention from the the sheer illogic of the decision, the judge wrote pages and pages of it — 186 pages in all, narrating the whole story as witnessed by Jessica Alfaro. She probably thought that the sheer length of her decision would numb the minds of the people and so they would just applaud her decision, whatever it was.

For being such a great upholder of Injustice in the land, Judge Tolentino was promoted to Justice of the Court of Appeals.

CA JUSTICES DON’T READ THE CASE DOCUMENTS

The many revelations that came out during scandals affecting the Court of Appeals (CA) justices, such as in the case of the Meralco-GSIS bribe scandal, one can conclude that the Philippine Court of Appeals is in such a great mess.

I believe it was in the Meralco-GSIS case that a justice complained that the other justices could not have made a fair decision because they could not have possibly read the voluminous documents of the case in so short a time.

But who has heard of CA justices reading court documents?

In the recent plagiarism case involving the SC, it is now proven that some justices don’t even write their decisions. They either just copy them or ask their assistants to write and/or copy for them.

The CA has been described as “the fairest justice money can buy”.

ALIBI

Alibi is the Latin term for elsewhere. When a person says he has an alibi, it means that he was elsewhere when the event happened.

In any of the numerous American cops-and-robbers or crime/mystery movies and TV shows, if a police detective says that the suspect has an alibi, it usually means that he is likely to be not guilty unless the cops can come up with convincing evidence that the suspect was lying.

In the Philippines, in everyday speech, when one says that another person has an alibi, it usually means that that person has an excuse but is most probably lying.

Philippine courts are fond of stating something like:

“Settled is the rule that the defense of alibi is inherently weak and crumbles in the light of positive declarations of truthful witnesses who testified on affirmative matters. Being evidence that is negative in nature and self- serving, it cannot attain more credibility than the testimonies of prosecution witnesses who testify on clean and positive evidence. On top of its inherent weakness,alibi becomes less plausible as a defense when it is corroborated only by relatives or close friends of the accused.” (See Annotation on Alibi and Denial by Judge Alicia Gonzalez-Decano) [emphasis added]

This means that if a person has a grudge against you or is paid or coerced by someone, s/he has the power of life or death over you as s/he can testify that you committed a crime even if a thousand of your friends and relatives will swear to high heavens that you were with them at the time the crime was committed. In fact it is even worse (“less plausible as a defense”) if these friends and relatives would vouch for you. You could even present bus tickets or airline tickets or photographs or videos of you being somewhere else — all to no avail. The power of positive identification by a witness is sacred in Philippine legal system, it seems.

This is a bit understandable because without the testimony of such witnesses, no person in the country would be in jail for murder, rape, robbery, etc. unless s/he was caught in the act (inflagrante delicto). There is no such thing here as FORENSIC EVIDENCE.

The justice system obtaining in this country is like during the war-time Japanese occupation when collaborators, with their heads covered in paper bags with holes for them to see, pointed out people for the Japanese to arrest and later execute.

ALIBI IN OTHER COUNTRIES

In R v Demers, (1926) 4 DLR 991 (Quebec), Justice Hall wrote:

“In its essence a defence of alibi is nothing more than a plea of not guilty, because the accused was not present at the place where the offence was committed on the occasion indicated.

“Once introduced, the evidence of the prosecution is, for the moment, suspended, and the judge or jury is bound to examine the evidence offered in support of the alibi, since it is clear that, if the alibi be established, the accused could not be the guilty party.”

R v Hibbert [2002] 2 SCR 445, Justice Arbour noted the these instructions to the jury:

“… if you accept the evidence in support of the defence of alibi, you must return a verdict of not guilty if you find that these times just do not allow for this accused to have committed the acts alleged.

“If you do not accept the evidence in support of the defence of alibi, but you are left in a reasonable doubt about it, you must return a verdict of not guilty.

“Even if you are not left in a reasonable doubt by the evidence in support of the defence of alibi, you must still go on to determine whether or not on the basis of all the evidence the accused is guilty.”

From the quotes above, it is clear that in other countries, it is imperative to examine the evidence supporting the alibi. In fact, as Justice Arbour noted above, if the jury is not certain about the evidence at hand; i.e., it could be true or it could be false, then a verdict of not guilty must be made.

Were Judge Tolentino and the CA justices absolutely certain, without reasonable doubt, that the plane tickets, the airline manifestos, the passport visa stamps, the certifications by the US embassy, etc. that were given to support Hubert Webb’s alibi were ALL FALSE and FABRICATED by the seemingly all-too-powerful Webb family?

Even the SC was stumped at the apparent illogical reasoning of the lower courts. It said:

The courts below held that, despite his evidence, Webb was actually in Parañaque when the Vizconde killings took place; he was not in the U.S. from March 9, 1991 to October 27, 1992; and if he did leave on March 9, 1991, he actually returned before June 29, 1991, committed the crime, erased the fact of his return to the Philippines from the records of the U.S. and Philippine Immigrations, smuggled himself out of the Philippines and into the U.S., and returned the normal way on October 27, 1992. But this ruling practically makes the death of Webb and his passage into the next life the only acceptable alibi in the Philippines. Courts must abandon this unjust and inhuman paradigm.

If one is cynical about the Philippine system, he could probably claim that Webb, with his father’s connections, can arrange for the local immigration to put a March 9, 1991 departure stamp on his passport and an October 27, 1992 arrival stamp on the same. But this is pure speculation since there had been no indication that such arrangement was made. Besides, how could Webb fix a foreign airlines’ passenger manifest, officially filed in the Philippines and at the airport in the U.S. that had his name on them? How could Webb fix with the U.S. Immigration’s record system those two dates in its record of his travels as well as the dates when he supposedly departed in secret from the U.S. to commit the crime in the Philippines and then return there? No one has come up with a logical and plausible answer to these questions. [emphasis added]

The SC majority decision did not mince words. With the illogical reasoning of the lower courts (and the dissenting justices, including the Chief Justice), the only way that Webb, or for that matter, any accused, could claim his innocence would be if he were dead. But if he were dead, there wouldn’t have been any trial.

SC JUSTICES’ DERRING-DO

Most of the masses, including the middle class, are now wondering why the SC suddenly changed the decisions of the trial court and the court of appeals. Didn’t Judge Tolentino get her promotion to the CA because of her supposed brave decision on the Vizconde case? Didn’t presidential legal counsel and PACC chief Rene Cayetano get elected to the Senate partly because of his role in the swift investigation and arraignment once the accused were named? Wasn’t Jessica Alfaro the heroine-savior just as the Vizconde girls were the heroine-victims? Weren’t Hubert Webb and the other rich boys the villains in this real-life soap opera? What will happen now to Lauro Vizconde, the husband and father of the victims. Almost twenty years after the crime, and everything is set back to square one? How could the SC do this?

Indeed, it was very brave of the SC to come up with a very controversial, if not unpopular decision. It can be presumed that with the close decision (7-4, with 2 abstentions, 1 not taking part and 1 on leave), there must have been a lot of quid-pro-quo horse trading, especially since the Chief Justice led the dissenters.

IS THERE JUSTICE IN THE PHILIPPINE COURTS?

This landmark decision by the SC cannot be taken to mean there is justice in the Philippines. On the contrary, it is a very good document that there is no justice in the country.

It shows that injustice starts first at the hands of the police and NBI. These agencies do not care whether the real culprits are caught or not. They merely want to get some people who will be accused and put on trial.

It shows that the Regional Trial Court judge has God-like powers. S/he can admit or deny evidence as s/he deems fit. S/he holds the power of life and death over the accused in his/her sala. What the RTC judge rules in criminal cases are usually upheld by the CA on the presumption that the lower court has the better vantage point having seen and heard the actions and words (including the tone of voice, body language, etc.) of the accused and the witnesses first hand.

Too much power in the hands of one person, with all his/her biases and prejudices cannot be good for the justice system. And in a country where a judge gets a very modest pay, opportunities for bribery are too many.

Perhaps the only remedy here is TO HAVE A JURY SYSTEM IN THE PHILIPPINES. Being judged by a dozen of one’s peers, randomly chosen, is so much better than being judged by ONE person who is only accountable to a dozen or so of his/her colleagues in the legal and judicial professions.

As a rule, the higher court justices do not read the voluminous volumes of the trial proceedings. They merely scan through them, at best. The SC usually only rules on matters of law and not whether the trial court judge and the CA justices erred in appreciating the merits of the evidences provided. The present case is an exception to the rule.

The scandals that rocked the CA recently provided us mere glimpses on the present mess the CA is in.

Besides, Judge Tolentino has been with the CA since 2001. She is also a town mate of President Macapagal-Arroyo. How could the CA reverse the decision of one of its justices?

KAPAMILYA (FAMILY RELATIONS)

The Vizconde case trial finished in 2000. It took ten years later before the SC acted on it. Ten years is not long in the Philippines. And I believe that if the political situation is different, Hubert Webb et al would still be in jail.

First, the Presidential Sister is a movie star. I remember reading in 1992 that this Presidential Sister, Kris Aquino, asked her mom, then President Cory Aquino to include Freddie Webb in the senatorial line-up.

Kris Aquino is a contract star of the Lopez-owned radio-TV network. Freddie Webb and his daughter, the broadcast journalist Pinky Webb are also under contract with ABS-CBN. It is a very well-known fact that the Lopez and Aquino families have a symbiotic political relationship. President Cory Aquino gave back ABS-CBN, which was sequestered by the late President Marcos, to the Lopezes. In the 2010 elections, the network practically ran the Aquino campaign.

It is popular knowledge that the Lopezes take good care of their talents, one of whom became a senator and another became the past Vice President. The ABS CBN calls itself the Kapamilya (Family or Relatives) network. Thus, presidential sister Kris Aquino, former VP Noli de Castro, Freddie and Pinky Webb belong to one big family. And by extension, so do President Noynoy Aquino and Hubert Webb.

BLITZKRIEG DEVELOPMENT

This year, the Vizconde case suddenly got a new life. Not waiting for the mandatory SC review, the Webb camp petitioned the SC to have the semen sample found in Carmela Vizconde’s body be tested for DNA.

This has been petitioned before and was denied by the lower court because at that time, the Philippine authorities supposedly lacked the capacity to do so. This previous decision again proves the absolute lack of justice in the Philippines.

If Philippine agencies could not test DNA samples, could they not send these samples elsewhere, say Hong Kong or Australia or even the US? Aren’t the lives of the accused more precious than the few dollars needed to send the samples abroad for testing? Aren’t the courts supposed to ferret out the TRUTH?

In April 2010, 15 years after the crime, the SC granted the Webb motion to test the DNA sample. Apparently, the NBI now has the capability to do so.

As the SC pointed out, Webb did not make such appeal earlier in the Appellate Court. Obviously, the Webb camp knew that the appeals court would simply throw it into the dustbin. It must be noted again that Judge Tolentino was already CA Justice Tolentino. And Justice Tolentino came from Lubao, Pampanga, the hometown of the late President Macapagal and his daughter, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

As expected, the NBI claimed that it had given the sample to the trial court. The trial court denied it. And so, we then had the case of the missing sperm. And this gave the Webb camp the reason to file an urgent motion for Outright Acquittal due to denial of due process last October 8.

By Nov. 26, Lauro Vizconde told media that a justice told him that one of the senior justices was trying to strong arm the others to change the CA verdict. Vizconde was referring to a pro-Aquino justice.

On Nov. 29, Biong, who was convicted as Webb’s accomplice, was released from jail after supposedly serving his full term. He then went on a media tour (courtesy of ABS CBN), giving interviews here and there. Of course, he maintained his innocence as well as Hubert Webb’s.

Meanwhile, the Webb camp set up the Free Hubert Webb sites in cyberspace like in Facebook. The campaign was on.

On Dec. 14, just a little over 2 months after his urgent motion for acquittal, Hubert Webb, after spending 15 years in jail, was exonerated by the Supreme Court.

But the media campaign is not over. ABS CBN needs to drum up more support for Webb and company, for good measure. After all, the prosecutors might appeal the SC decision.

INJUSTICE FOR ALL

This 15-year drama has caused serious injury (mental, emotional if not physical) to so many people — to the accused, their friends and loved ones, to the witnesses and to Lauro Vizconde whose family the real criminals took away from him.

The Filipino suffers the injustice as well. The individuals and institutions – the police, the NBI, the prosecutors, the judge and the justices — mandated to be the protectors of the people and the guardians of Justice – were really the ones who made a mockery of justice in the country.

If Webb and his co-accused were ordinary people like poor Lauro Vizconde and did not have the wherewithal to sustain a long fight, then they would be spending Christmas in jail all their lives.

What is very discouraging is that unlike in the US where there is no statute of limitation for first degree murder, in the Philippines, twenty (20) years is the prescription period. In the Vizconde case, the prescription period will lapse in June next year. Mr. Vizconde will never have justice.

And it is my holiday wish that the NBI and police will not fall back on their M.O. and pick up suspects pointed out by their assets, torture them to force confessions or to fabricate lies and false witnesses and start another twenty years of courtroom drama.

LACSON KNOWS BEST

Incumbent senator and former presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson is fleeing justice.  Lacson used to be with PACC and was head of the Philippine National Police (PNP). As a police chief and as senator and presidential candidate, he knows very well, better than us, ordinary mortals, how the wheels of justice turn in this FAILING/FAILED STATE called the Philippines.

IT IS TIME FOR THE FILIPINO PEOPLE TO WAKE UP AND DEMAND JUDICIAL REFORM.

WE CAN START WITH THE JURY SYSTEM.

=====================

See SUPREME COURT DECISION

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