Posted by Batas Internet Media on Monday, February 21, 2011
By Rodel E. Rodis
The Philippine Supreme Court exhibited chicanery in its February 8, 2011 decision denying “with finality” the appeal of the five men known as the “Abadilla 5” who were convicted of the ambush killing of Col. Rolando Abadilla on June 13, 1996.
In reaching this decision, the Court had to address the issue of whether to respect or reject the trial judge's determination of the credibility of witnesses. The Court also had to deal with the question of what weight to give to the forensic evidence presented or not presented in the case.
These were the same two issues addressed in the Court's December 14, 2010 decision acquitting Hubert Webb and his companions for the gang-rape and murder of 19-year-old Carmela Vizconde along with the murder of her 7-year-old sister and their mother on June 30, 1991 at their home in Paranaque City, Metro Manila.
In that decision, the majority of the SC justices rejected the trial court judge's determination that the prosecution's key witness, Jessica Alfaro, was credible.
Alfaro had testified at the court trial that she was with Webb and his friends, one of whom was her boy friend, Peter Estrada, when they went to the Vizconde home on the night of June 30, 1996 because Hubert wanted to have Carmela gang-raped for spurning his advances.
According to her testimony, Alfaro went with Hubert Webb, Antonio Lejano and Artemio Ventura inside the Vizconde home, while the others waited outside before Alfaro decided to go outside to smoke. When she returned, she said she saw Ventura rifling through a lady's bag looking for a car key, he told her. When she went to the dining area, she heard a sound in the master's bedroom and went to see what was going on.
As Justice Villarama describes it, "as she walked in, she saw Webb on top of Carmela while she lay with her back on the floor. Two bloodied bodies lay on the bed. Lejano was at the foot of the bed about to wear his jacket. Carmela was gagged, moaning, and in tears while Webb raped her, his bare buttocks exposed."
"Webb gave Alfaro a meaningful look and she immediately left the room. She met Ventura at the dining area. He told her, “Prepare an escape. Aalis na tayo.” Shocked with what she saw, Alfaro rushed out of the house to the others who were either sitting in her car or milling on the sidewalk. She entered her car and turned on the engine but she did not know where to go. Webb, Lejano, and Ventura came out of the house just then. Webb suddenly picked up a stone and threw it at the main door, breaking its glass frame."
After the three men left the Vizconde home, Alfaro said that she learned from Webb what happened. "The first to be killed was Carmela’s mother, then Jennifer, and finally, Carmella." Alfaro said that Ventura blamed Webb for killing the 7-year old sister of Carmela. Webb explained that while he was raping Carmela, the sister "jumped on him, bit his shoulders, and pulled his hair. Webb got mad, grabbed the girl, pushed her to the wall, and repeatedly stabbed her."
After the prosecution completed its case, Webb testified that he was in the US when the gang-rape occurred presenting a photocopy of his passport indicating a date of arrival in the Philippines after the heinous crime occurred. But one of the prosecution’s witnesses was a labandera (laundrywoman) of the Webb family who testified that Webb was in the Philippines when the murders occurred and that she went to Hubert’s room on the morning after the gang-rape to pick up Hubert’s clothes to wash and saw him there asleep. She said that there was blood on Hubert’s shirt as she had difficulty removing the blood stains.
The majority of the justices determined that Alfaro had inconsistencies in her testimony and, because she was an admitted drug user, she should not have been believed by the trial judge.
In his dissent, Justice Martin Villarama agreed with the trial court judge who “found Alfaro as a credible and truthful witness, considering the vast details she disclosed relative to the incident she had witnessed inside the Vizconde house. The trial court noted that Alfaro testified in a categorical, straightforward, spontaneous and frank manner, and has remained consistent in her narration of the events despite a lengthy and grueling cross-examination conducted on her by eight (8) defense lawyers.”
One of the defendants in the Webb case, police officer Gerardo Biong, was charged with being an accessory after the fact for destroying evidence at the crime scene after he was instructed by Hubert Webb to “clean” the place. Biong admitted that he stole Carmela’s jewelry and sold them to a pawnbroker obtaining 20,000 pesos for them. Alfaro was with him when he pawned Carmelita’s jewelry.
Based largely on Alfaro's eyewitness testimony, the trial court judgeon January 4, 2000, found all the accused guilty as charged and imposed a penalty of life imprisonment. When the accused appealed the decision, the Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed the judgments of conviction.
In April 2010, Webb’s lawyers pursued another tact and filed an "urgent motion to acquit" after learning that that the NBI no longer had custody of the semen specimen taken from the corpse of Carmela Vizconde.
The Supreme Court acquitted Webb and his accomplices because most of the justices found Alfaro not to be a “credible” witness and because of the absence of a semen sample that could have been used for a DNA check.
In the Abadilla 5 case, the Supreme Court was faced with the same two issues but the result was markedly different.
Col. Rolando Abadilla was the head of the dreaded Military Intelligence Security Group (MISG) during the Marcos Dictatorship and the MISG (where Ping Lacson served as one of Abadilla’s top men) was notorious for its brutal torture methods and for its summary execution (“salvaging”) of suspected rebels.
On June 13, 1996, Abadilla was ambushed and killed on a Quezon City road. Soon after the killing, the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), a “sparrow unit” of the New People’s Army (NPA), claimed credit for the execution to avenge what it said were the “blood debts” Abadilla accumulated during the years of the Marcos regime.
Because Abadilla had boasted that NPA assassins could never kill him despite their repeated attempts to do so, Abadilla’s family refused to accept the NPA’s claim.
There was only one eyewitness to the ambush-killing of Abadilla - Freddie Alejo, a security guard who claimed that he saw the faces of the gunmen “in a fleeting and extremely stressful manner.”
Six days after the killing, the police investigators presented Alejo with a photo of Joel de Jesus whom a police officer believed was involved in the killing. No other photo was presented to Alejo. Several days later, the police picked up De Jesus and presented him to Alejo for identification. Based on the photo that he was presented with, Alejo identified De Jesus as one of the gunmen.
De Jesus was then interrogated with some of the most brutal torture tactics employed by Abadilla during the Marcos years such as suffocation with plastic bag over his head, electrocution on the genitals, water torture and raw physical abuse. The tactics forced De Jesus to cough up the names of four people he knew just to stop the torture. The four -Lenido Lumanog, Augusto Santos, Cesar Fortuna and Rameses de Jesus – were then picked up and subjected to the same torture inflicted on De Jesus until they too signed a “confession.”
After the accused were presented to the media by the police, Alejo identified them as the gunmen he said he saw at the scene.
Other than their “confessions”, there was no forensic evidence like fingerprints to tie any of the accused to the murder scene and all of them presented dozens of witnesses who testified that they were somewhere else when Abadilla was killed.
Joel de Jesus was driving his passenger tricycle in Fairview, Quezon City; Cesar Fortuna was at Camp Crame for official business and his presence was corroborated by two police officials whom he had transacted business with; Augusto Santos was at the Jose Fabella Hospital in Manila visiting his brother-in-law, Jonas Ayhon, whose wife had just given birth; and Rameses de Jesus and Lenido Lumanog had just left Manila for Mabalacat, Pampanga where they stayed until the evening of June 14.
In the course of the investigation and trial of the Abadilla 5, the Abadilla family provided witness Alejo with a job working for them at the family home. (The SC did not find this fact suspicious while finding that Alfaro's subsequent employment by the NBI as an informant made her testimony incredible).
Members of the NPA sparrow unit felt disrespected for not getting credit for their execution of Abadilla. Through a Catholic priest, Fr. Roberto Reyes, they presented police authorities with proof of their kill: Abadilla’s cal. 45 pistol and his Omega wristwatch. They also pointed out that the ballistics data collected at the crime scene indicated that the bullets matched those used in other assassinations by the NPA sparrow unit.
The Court ignored the personal testimonies of the accused and their corroborating witnesses and the NPA’s acknowledgment of the kill. Based entirely on the “eyewitness” testimony of Alejo and on their coerced confessions, the “Abadilla 5” were found guilty by Judge Jaime Salazar of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court and convicted and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.
After the five were convicted in 1999, they appealed their convictions and the appeal wound its way to the Supreme Court which denied their final appeal on February 8, 2011 in a 9-4 decision.
In his dissent, Justice Antonio Carpio said it was evident that the arresting officers had purposely coached Alejo into identifying De Jesus as the one who poked a gun at him while he was guarding an establishment near the crime scene. The police “primed and conditioned Alejo to identify De Jesus as one of the murderers of Abadilla.”
Carpio said Alejo admitted in his sworn statement that he could not remember the physical attributes of the gunmen—aside from two men whom he later identified as De Jesus and Lorenzo delos Santos, who was eventually acquitted of the charges.“The grave disparity between the description of the gunman in Alejo’s sworn statement and in his testimony greatly undermines (his) credibility,” he said.
In a separate dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Roberto Abad also doubted Alejo’s testimony and took note of the court’s failure to take “judicial notice” of the fact that the communist Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) had claimed responsibility in killing Abadilla”.
Nevertheless, the majority voted to give credence to the decision of the trial judge as he was the one who presided at the trial and could determine the credibility of Alejo. The majority justices also discounted the lack of any forensic evidence linking the accused to the crime as being immaterial compared to the “credible” testimony of the witness.
The same legal issues were involved in the two cases but the results were contradictory. Was the principle of “equal protection of the law” applied? Is it a coincidence that the Webb defendants are wealthy while the Abadilla 5 are not?
(Send comments toRodel50@aol.comor mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).