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G.R. No. 176389 December 14, 2010
ANTONIO LEJANO, Petitioner,
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondent.
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G.R. No. 176864
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Appellee,
HUBERT JEFFREY P. WEBB, ANTONIO LEJANO, MICHAEL A. GATCHALIAN, HOSPICIO FERNANDEZ, MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ, PETER ESTRADA and GERARDO BIONG, Appellants.
On June 30, 1991 Estrellita Vizconde and her daughters Carmela, nineteen years old, and xxx, seven, were brutally slain at their home in Parañaque City. Following an intense investigation, the police arrested a group of suspects, some of whom gave detailed confessions. But the trial court smelled a frame-up and eventually ordered them discharged. Thus, the identities of the real perpetrators remained a mystery especially to the public whose interests were aroused by the gripping details of what everybody referred to as the Vizconde massacre.
Four years later in 1995, the National Bureau of Investigation or NBI announced that it had solved the crime. It presented star-witness Jessica M. Alfaro, one of its informers, who claimed that she witnessed the crime. She pointed to accused Hubert Jeffrey P. Webb, Antonio "Tony Boy" Lejano, Artemio "Dong" Ventura, Michael A. Gatchalian, Hospicio "Pyke" Fernandez, Peter Estrada, Miguel "Ging" Rodriguez, and Joey Filart as the culprits. She also tagged accused police officer, Gerardo Biong, as an accessory after the fact. Relying primarily on Alfaro's testimony, on August 10, 1995 the public prosecutors filed an information for rape with homicide against Webb, et al.
The Regional Trial Court of Parañaque City, presided over by Judge Amelita G. Tolentino, tried only seven of the accused since Artemio Ventura and Joey Filart remained at large.
The prosecution presented Alfaro as its main witness with the others corroborating her testimony. These included the medico-legal officer who autopsied the bodies of the victims, the security guards of Pitong Daan Subdivision, the former laundrywoman of the Webb’s household, police officer Biong’s former girlfriend, and Lauro G. Vizconde, Estrellita’s husband.
Webb’s alibi appeared the strongest since he claimed that he was then across the ocean in the United States of America. He presented the testimonies of witnesses as well as documentary and object evidence to prove this. In addition, the defense presented witnesses to show Alfaro's bad reputation for truth and the incredible nature of her testimony.
But impressed by Alfaro’s detailed narration of the crime and the events surrounding it, the trial court found a credible witness in her. It noted her categorical, straightforward, spontaneous, and frank testimony, undamaged by grueling cross-examinations.
On January 4, 2000, after four years of arduous hearings, the trial court rendered judgment, finding all the accused guilty as charged and imposing on Webb, Lejano, Gatchalian, Fernandez, Estrada, and Rodriguez the penalty of reclusion perpetua and on Biong, an indeterminate prison term of eleven years, four months, and one day to twelve years. The trial court also awarded damages to Lauro Vizconde.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, modifying the penalty imposed on Biong to six years minimum and twelve years maximum and increasing the award of damages to Lauro Vizconde.
The appellate court did not agree that the accused were tried by publicity or that the trial judge was biased. It found sufficient evidence of conspiracy that rendered Rodriguez, Gatchalian, Fernandez, and Estrada equally guilty with those who had a part in raping and killing Carmela and in executing her mother and sister.
On April 20, 2010, as a result of its initial deliberation in this case, the Court issued a Resolution granting the request of Webb to submit for DNA analysis the semen specimen taken from Carmela’s cadaver, which specimen was then believed still under the safekeeping of the NBI.
The Court granted the request pursuant to section 4 of the Rule on DNA Evidence to give the accused and the prosecution access to scientific evidence that they might want to avail themselves of, leading to a correct decision in the case.
Unfortunately, on April 27, 2010 the NBI informed the Court that it no longer has custody of the specimen, the same having been turned over to the trial court. The trial record shows, however, that the specimen was not among the object evidence that the prosecution offered in evidence in the case.
This outcome prompted accused Webb to file an urgent motion to acquit on the ground that the government’s failure to preserve such vital evidence has resulted in the denial of his right to due process.
1. Whether or not Alfaro’s testimony as eyewitness, describing the crime and identifying Webb, Lejano, Gatchalian, Fernandez, Estrada, Rodriguez, and two others as the persons who committed it, is entitled to belief; and
2. Whether or not Webb presented sufficient evidence to prove his alibi and rebut Alfaro’s testimony that he led the others in committing the crime.
1. Whether or not the Court should acquit him outright, given the government’s failure to produce the semen specimen that the NBI found on Carmela’s cadaver, thus depriving him of evidence that would prove his innocence; and
2. Whether or not Webb, acting in conspiracy with Lejano, Gatchalian, Fernandez, Estrada, Rodriguez, Ventura, and Filart, raped and killed Carmela and put to death her mother and sister.
The Right to Acquittal Due to Loss of DNA Evidence
Webb claims, citing Brady v. Maryland, that he is entitled to outright acquittal on the ground of violation of his right to due process given the State’s failure to produce on order of the Court either by negligence or willful suppression the semen specimen taken from Carmela.
When Webb raised the DNA issue, the rule governing DNA evidence did not yet exist, the country did not yet have the technology for conducting the test, and no Philippine precedent had as yet recognized its admissibility as evidence.
Consequently, the idea of keeping the specimen secure even after the trial court rejected the motion for DNA testing did not come up. Indeed, neither Webb nor his co-accused brought up the matter of preserving the specimen in the meantime.
Parenthetically, after the trial court denied Webb’s application for DNA testing, he allowed the proceeding to move on when he had on at least two occasions gone up to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court to challenge alleged arbitrary actions taken against him and the other accused.
They raised the DNA issue before the Court of Appeals but merely as an error committed by the trial court in rendering its decision in the case. None of the accused filed a motion with the appeals court to have the DNA test done pending adjudication of their appeal. This, even when the Supreme Court had in the meantime passed the rules allowing such test. Considering the accused’s lack of interest in having such test done, the State cannot be deemed put on reasonable notice that it would be required to produce the semen specimen at some future time.
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. Some of this information led to the capture of notorious drug pushers like Christopher Cruz Santos and Orlando Bacquir. Alfaro’s tip led to the arrest of the leader of the "Martilyo gang" that killed a police officer. Because of her talent, the task force gave her "very special treatment" and she became its "darling," allowed the privilege of spending nights in one of the rooms at the NBI offices.
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.
Webb’s U.S. Alibi
Among the accused, Webb presented the strongest alibi through (a) the travel preparations; (b) the two immigration checks; (c) details of US sojourn; (d) the second immigration check; and (e) alibi versus positive identification; and (f) a documented alibi.
To establish alibi, the accused must prove by positive, clear, and satisfactory evidence that (a) he was present at another place at the time of the perpetration of the crime, and (b) that it was physically impossible for him to be at the scene of the crime.
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.
Effect of Webb’s alibi to others
Webb’s documented alibi altogether impeaches Alfaro's testimony, not only with respect to him, but also with respect to Lejano, Estrada, Fernandez, Gatchalian, Rodriguez, and Biong. For, if the Court accepts the proposition that Webb was in the U.S. when the crime took place, Alfaro’s testimony will not hold together. Webb’s participation is the anchor of Alfaro’s story. Without it, the evidence against the others must necessarily fall.
In our criminal justice system, what is important is, not whether the court entertains doubts about the innocence of the accused since an open mind is willing to explore all possibilities, but whether it entertains a reasonable, lingering doubt as to his guilt. For, it would be a serious mistake to send an innocent man to jail where such kind of doubt hangs on to one’s inner being, like a piece of meat lodged immovable between teeth.
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?
The Supreme Court REVERSES and SETS ASIDE the Decision dated December 15, 2005 and Resolution dated January 26, 2007 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. 00336 and ACQUITS accused-appellants Hubert Jeffrey P. Webb, Antonio Lejano, Michael A. Gatchalian, Hospicio Fernandez, Miguel Rodriguez, Peter Estrada and Gerardo Biong of the crimes of which they were charged for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. They are ordered immediately RELEASED from detention unless they are confined for another lawful cause.