Contrasting are the strategies of the opposing counsels in the Corona impeachment trial. Banking on the live TV-radio coverage, the prosecution uses the power of media to influence thought and galvanize opinion. Au contraire, the defense relies on legalese and technicalities to rattle the prosecutors and to bar the public exposition of allegedly “impertinent, irrelevant and immaterial” evidence.
Prosecution’s strategy. To win the impeachment case, the House of Representatives uses easy-to-comprehend weapons to reach not only the non-lawyers among the senators but also the great masses of our people. On the other hand, the defense relies on arguments understood and appreciated by lawyers but which appear inscrutable to and often perceived by the public as mere excuses to hide the truth.
Let’s rehash the prosecution’s strategy. To initiate the impeachment, the House filed, without prior notice and hearing, a verified complaint signed by 188 congressmen. This method preempted any scheme or plan to derail the initiation process. Still fresh in the House’s mind was the Supreme Court status quo order that, for sometime, stymied the impeachment of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.
While the verified complaint consisted of eight Articles of Impeachment, the prosecution opted (and got Senate approval) to begin with the second article, instead of the first, to the chagrin of the defense that expected a chronological presentation.
The prosecutors probably thought that the second article, which alleges (1) Corona’s failure to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities and networth (SALN), (2) the non-inclusion of some properties in his SALN, and (3) the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth would resonate better with the public.
The Senate allowed the presentation of evidence on the foregoing items 1 and 2 but—unless the proper basis is first laid—barred any presentation to prove the ill-gotten wealth alleged in item 3. Nonetheless, it listened to Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares testify on the reported income and assets of Chief Justice Renato Corona and his wife Cristina.
Obviously, the prosecution hopes to show that (a) some assets were not included in the SALN and (b) there is a wide disparity between the assets (house and lots, condos, shares of stock, bank deposits, etc.) acquired by the Coronas, and their known income, thereby laying the basis for the ill-gotten wealth charge.
Though sometimes fumbling and deficient in courtroom skills, the prosecution still connected heavily on TV, radio, print and the new media like Internet, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and texts. The power of new media cannot be underestimated; it was mightily employed in ousting the entrenched tyrannical leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Defense strategy. The defense team, composed of seasoned trial lawyers, depended largely on battle-tested legal techniques used in criminal cases. The defense rattled the bewildered prosecution lawyers by using every possible objection in the Rules of Court to stop them from asking the most elementary questions.
The defense also convinced the Senate to prohibit the introduction of evidence to prove Corona’s alleged ill-gotten wealth, arguing that Article 2 merely involved the non-disclosure of SALN, not ill-gotten wealth. However, the Senate also ruled that should the gathered evidence show a wide disparity between the assets acquired and the reported income, the prima facie presumption that the amassed wealth is ill-gotten will apply.
Too much reliance on technicalities has limits. Chief Justice Corona himself in his ponencia in Republic v. Sandiganbayan (July 15, 2003), quoted the 1910 case of Alonso v. Villamor, thus: “A litigation is not a game of technicalities in which one, more deeply schooled and skilled in the subtle art of movement and position, entraps and destroys the other. It is rather a contest in which each contending party fully and fairly lays before the court the facts in issue and then, brushing aside as wholly trivial and indecisive all imperfections of form and technicalities of procedure, asks that justice be done upon the merits. Lawsuits, unlike duels, are not to be won by a rapier’s thrust.”
Best strategy. Sometimes, insistence on technical rules on insignificant and trivial matters can be counter-productive in impeachment cases. Remember, the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada was cut short and taken over by the people when the Senate, succumbing to technical objections, refused to open the second envelope which, ironically for Estrada, turned out later on to contain no harmful evidence.
Frustrated with petty technicalities, which were viewed as incomprehensible barriers to the discovery of truth, the people took over the impeachment, rallied at Edsa and ousted Estrada. Had the defense lawyers not insisted on technical objections to the harmless second envelope, the impeachment trial could have ended differently.
I think it is best to be transparent, open and forthright, and to abandon the use of unnecessary technicalities, remembering always that impeachment belongs to the people, not just to lawyers. Our people simply want the truth. Anything that prevents its discovery merely incenses them all the more. The best strategy is really simple and is captured in lyrical Filipino, “Walang taguan, walang takipan. Katotohanan lamang ang panalo sa bayan.” (Rough translation: Hide nothing, cover up nothing. Only truth will win the people.)
* * *