Criminal law 101

MANILA, Philippines—Media’s deafening howl over the Supreme Court’s decision (Lumanog vs. People, Sept. 7, 2010) convicting—via a vote of 10-4 with one abstention—the so-called “Abadilla 5” for the 1996 murder of Col. Rolando N. Abadilla echoed a lot of questions. To answer them systematically, I will lay down some basics of criminal law.

Crime and criminal. To secure a conviction, the prosecution must prove (1) that the crime charged in the “information” had taken place and (2) that the accused perpetrated it. An act or omission cannot be deemed a crime unless a law defines it as such and provides a penalty for it.

For example, no law punishes the failure to pay a debt. In fact, the Constitution bars the imprisonment of anyone for failure to honor a debt due to poverty. But, there is a civil obligation to repay it. A deliberate refusal to obey a court order to pay a debt (when the debtor has the means) can constitute contempt and can be punished with incarceration.

The information, which is prepared by a government prosecutor, must contain a concise statement of ultimate facts, which—if proven—will constitute a specific offense (like murder, rape or theft). If the facts alleged in the information are not proven, or—even if proven—do not constitute a crime punishable by law, then the accused deserve an acquittal without having to prove their innocence.

Even if they plead guilty, the accused cannot be convicted and punished if—to repeat—the facts alleged in the information do not constitute a crime. Moreover, when the crime charged is capital in nature (punishable by life imprisonment), the prosecution is still required to prove the facts constituting the offense, even if the accused has already pleaded guilty.

The Bill of Rights says, “the accused…has the right to be informed… of the nature and cause of the accusation.” So, he (or she) can be liable only for a crime he had been “informed” of, or one stated in the information. Except when the crime proven is necessarily included in the crime charged.

For example, if the crime charged is murder, but the prosecution proved only homicide, then the accused can be convicted only of homicide. If the crime charged is homicide, the accused cannot be held liable for murder even if murder was proven. Reason: murder includes homicide but not vice-versa. Murder is really homicide with an added “qualifying circumstance” like treachery.

The identity of the accused as the perpetrator of the crime—whether as principal, accomplice or accessory—must also be proven. The Constitution presumes everyone—citizen or alien, man or woman, young or old—to be innocent of any crime.

Degree of proof needed. Both the commission of the crime and the identity of the accused must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. “Proof beyond reasonable doubt” does not entail absolute certainty. Rather, it refers to “that degree of proof which, after an examination of the entire records of the case, produces in an unprejudiced mind moral certainty of the culpability of the accused for the crime proved.”

Proof beyond reasonable doubt requires a much higher degree of certainty than “preponderance of evidence” (required in civil cases) which “means that, as a whole, the evidence adduced by one side outweighs that of the adverse party.” It is also stricter than “substantial evidence” (required in administrative proceedings like labor cases), which refers “to that amount of evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion.”

A judgment of acquittal “shall state whether the evidence of the prosecution absolutely failed to prove the guilt of the accused or merely failed to prove his (or her) guilt beyond reasonable doubt.” In other words, a judgment of acquittal does not necessarily mean that the accused is innocent but that the prosecution failed to adduce that degree of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) needed to convict. As the legal maxim goes, “to doubt is to acquit.”

Proof of guilt, not of innocence, required. The overriding consideration is not whether the court doubts the innocence of the accused, but whether it reasonably doubts their guilt. Where there is no moral certainty as to their guilt, they must be acquitted even though their innocence may be questionable. To stress, the presumption of innocence may be overthrown only by proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Aside from the prosecution’s failure to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, there are other reasons why a criminal case could be dismissed or an accused acquitted even if they are actually guilty. One is where the constitutional rights of the accused are violated so grossly that due process is effectively denied them.

For example, an unreasonable delay of more than 10 years to resolve a criminal case, without fault on the part of the accused and despite their earnest effort to have their case decided, violates the constitutional right to speedy trial and entitles them to instant acquittal without need to determine whether the evidence proves them guilty or not.

There are other ways of getting a criminal case dismissed via a motion to quash, like lack of jurisdiction of the court over the offense charged, or lack of jurisdiction over the person of the accused, or lack of authority on the part of the officer who filed the information, or when the crime charged has prescribed, when the information charges more than one offense, or when the right against double jeopardy would be infringed.

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