This question erupted again after the remaining 10 soldiers convicted of, and sentenced to two terms of reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment) for, the murder of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. and Rolando Galman were pardoned by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and released from the New Bilibid Prisons on March 4.
“We didn’t kill Ninoy.” Even after being freed, the former military men still professed their innocence. Verily, from the time they were charged and throughout their 26-year incarceration, they have always maintained their inculpability. Now, the chaplain of the Muntinlupa prisons, Msgr. Robert Olaguer, has revealed that, after continuous dialogue with them over the last 19 years, he is certain of their innocence.
“I used all my knowledge in psychology in my effort to seek the truth from them. I made use of religious teachings to make them confess. But as I did all these things, all the more I became convinced that they were not part of the plan to kill Ninoy,” sighed the chaplain. However, both Kris Aquino (speaking for President Corazon C. Aquino) and Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III were not persuaded, saying the convicts have been lying since 1983.
Since Ninoy’s murder on Aug. 21, 1983, our people have cried for a thorough investigation. On Aug. 24, 1983, President Ferdinand Marcos formed a fact-finding committee headed by then Chief Justice Enrique Fernando. To dispel doubts about the committee’s objectivity, Marcos created on Oct. 22, 1983 a new fact-finding body composed of former Court of Appeals Justice Corazon Agrava (chair), lawyer Luciano Salazar, businessman Dante Santos, labor leader Ernesto Herrera and educator Amado Dizon.
Guilt of one is guilt of all. After holding 125 sessions, hearing 194 witnesses and consuming 20,377 pages of transcript, the Agrava Board concluded that several military officers, including Armed Forces chief of staff Fabian Ver, conspired to kill Ninoy. Despite this, the Sandiganbayan, in a decision dated Dec. 2, 1985 penned by Justice Manuel Pamaran, acquitted all the accused.
Then came the EDSA revolution. Finding the trial “to be a sham,” the newly reconstituted Supreme Court nullified the Pamaran verdict. Thereafter, a re-trial ensued. In its 177-page decision dated Sept. 28, 1990 and written by Justice Regino C. Hermosisima Jr. (who was later elevated to the Supreme Court on July 10, 1995), the Sandiganbayan found conspiracy among the 16 soldiers, including Brig. Gen. Luther Custodio, and held them guilty of double murder.
It ruled that C1C Rogelio B. Moreno — the security escort positioned behind Senator Aquino — shot the victim while he was descending the stairway to the tarmac. When conspiracy is established, the guilt of one co-conspirator becomes the guilt of all.
The judgment became final after the Supreme Court denied the soldiers’ petition for review on July 23, 1991. But the convicts did not give up. In August 2004, their new counsel, Chief Public Attorney Persida R. Acosta, filed a new motion asking for a third trial on the main ground of “newly-discovered evidence” consisting of a forensic study showing that allegedly the bullet that killed the senator-hero had an upward trajectory. Thus, it could not have been fired by Moreno who was positioned higher on the stairway than Senator Aquino.
The new motion also claimed that a new witness, SPO5 Ruben Cantimbuhan, would testify that Rolando Galman, not Moreno, fired the shot. Since Galman, a civilian, had not been shown to be a part of the alleged military conspiracy, ergo, the 16 soldiers could not have been guilty.
SC: soldiers guilty. In a unanimous resolution dated March 8, 2005 penned by Justice (now Chief Justice) Reynato S. Puno, the Supreme Court denied the motion. It agreed with Justice Hermosisima that since “the wound of entrance was at a higher elevation than the wound of exit, there can be no other conclusion but that the trajectory was downward […] It is unthinkable that the bullet, while projected upwards, would, instead of exiting to the roof of the head, go down to the mandible because it was allegedly deflected by a petrous bone which though hard is in fact a mere spongy protuberance, akin to a cartilage.”
The Supreme Court added that the “Galman-did-it” theory had been correctly discarded by the Sandiganbayan, citing the credible testimonies of prosecution eyewitnesses Rebecca “crying lady” Quijano and Jessie Barcelona who “saw the soldier behind Senator Aquino on the stairway aim and fire a gun on the latter’s nape? and the corroborative statement of Time magazine’s Sandra Burton “that the shooting […] occurred while the senator was still on the bridge stairs[…]”
I spoke personally with Justice Hermosisima, now 81 years old and a current member of the Judicial and Bar Council. He is absolutely sure that on the basis of the evidence submitted to the Sandiganbayan, Moreno — not Galman — shot Senator Aquino. “I put on line my lifetime judicial career on that finding,” he assured me.
While the 16 soldiers have already been imprisoned and pardoned, the mastermind of the sordid plot has not been identified and prosecuted. The protestations of the convicts, Father Olaguer and PAO Chief Acosta, as well as the effort of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez to extradite Capt. Felipe Valerio and Col. Romeo Ochoco, who fled the country before they could be indicted, would be worthwhile if they would lead to the mastermind. Not having been prosecuted, Valerio, Ochoco and the mastermind could still be criminally sued.
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