Speeding up justice in Maguindanao massacre

The most gruesome murder of this century – the senseless shooting, mangling and “back-hoeing” of 57 defenseless civilians (32 were journalists) in Maguindanao province on Nov. 23, 2009 – was allegedly masterminded by the powerful Ampatuan clan and carried out by 187 malefactors. Unfortunately, the murder case is at present still languishing after two years despite the trial court’s singular effort in hearing it twice a week with two witnesses per hearing day.

More gutsy prosecution. Given the judiciary’s clogged dockets, cases are on the average heard only once a month. But even at the already faster hearing rate, the Maguindanao case could still take forever, considering its complexities and technicalities. Thus, to further speed it up, Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes recently directed the prosecution “to be prepared with five or six witnesses” for every trial day and “suggested,” per gmanews.tv, that the case be heard no longer just twice but thrice a week.

The prosecutors balked at this order of Judge Reyes, saying that it is extremely difficult to prepare five witnesses per trial day three times a week, or a total of 15 witnesses per week. They explained that the witnesses have to be transported to Manila from Maguindanao, interviewed patiently via interpreters for they speak neither English nor Pilipino, and persuaded that “it is safe for them to testify,” given their families’ vulnerability in their remote, insecure hometowns. So too, the government lacks the funds and personnel to tend the witnesses, and to house and feed them while the trial lasts.

Problems indeed the prosecutors have, but it is far better to face and solve them now than to risk delay. Time has a way of warping justice, of making witnesses “forget,” or lose interest in the case, or become easy prey to corruption, undue influence and outright bribery, or worse, die. They could one day “disappear” or become strangely inaccessible. Witnesses must be presented and cross-examined in person during the trial, otherwise the case cannot prosper. Documents could be “misplaced” or destroyed. A little more diligence, a little more patience, a little more gutsiness, the prosecutors need.

No-nonsense judge. The trial court itself is battered by meager finances and logistics. It lacks competent interpreters; many of the witnesses speak only their local dialect with nuances and shades of meaning not easy to translate and transcribe. Of course, Judge Reyes has many other cases to hear and decide.

Should the Maguindanao trial drag on for say 10 years, she – though eminently qualified – may lose the chance to be promoted to the Sandiganbayan or the Court of Appeals, just because she has to preside over this momentous but time-consuming trial.

Should she be promoted, or changed as presiding judge in midstream, her replacement – to be able to decide properly – would need to read meticulously thousands upon thousands of pages of records and testimonial transcripts, aside from hearing more witnesses and examining more pieces of evidence. Such eventuality would delay the case even more. And I am speaking only of the trial phase.

Such midstream change will also deprive the new judge of the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the past witnesses. The basic rule in criminal procedure is that the findings and conclusions of the trial court on the credibility of witnesses deserve great weight and respect because it had the advantage of observing the witnesses’ demeanor, deportment and attitude under grilling examination on the witness stand, an advantage that would be lost in case of a midstream change of judges.

More zealous defense. Most of all, it is the defense that should be zealous in preventing delays and in opting for speed. The accused face a capital offense and are detained while the case pends. Should any of them be eventually acquitted, he or she would have suffered pain and incarceration beyond retribution.

Considering that there are 187 accused, each of whom is theoretically entitled to a lawyer who in turn may have different strategies and tactics depending on how they see the guilt or innocence of their clients, the proceedings indeed could be monstrously delayed. And let us not forget the predilection of some counsels to grandstand before media cameras and reporters.

Just accommodating each of the lawyers in the courtroom and listening to them object to questions on every technical twist during the trial is a nightmare. Moreover, lawyers may raise interlocutory issues to higher courts thereby interrupting the trial schedule.

In fact, the two measures ordered by Judge Reyes (to prepare five witnesses and to hear the case thrice a week) could be brought to a higher court, which would ironically delay the trial should a restraining order be issued. And of course, a judgment on the merits rendered by the trial court could be elevated to the Court of Appeals and later to the Supreme Court, thereby really consigning the case beyond the foreseeable future.

The Maguindanao massacre case – though already two years in the offing—is really just beginning. It will have more twists and turns as it unwinds. My consolation is the fierce resolve of Judge Reyes to tackle the case head-on and to see that justice is done though the heavens may fall. In imperishable Latin, fiat justitia ruat caelum. In this monumental endeavor, she deserves the support of both the prosecution and the defense, and the eternal vigilance of the Filipino people.

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