Maguindanao massacre, still a long wait

Judicial decision-making, I wrote last Sunday, may be reduced in its simplest terms to an Aristotelian syllogism. Most of the time, the crucial part of the syllogism is the minor premise—that is, whether the facts alleged in the complaint or information have been duly proven.

Search for truth. As shown in many sensational criminal cases, the search for facts—yes, for the truth—can be extremely difficult, time-consuming and often frustrating. For example, three years ago on Nov. 23, 2009, 58 civilians—mostly media members—were gunned down, abused and “back-hoed” in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao.

Normally, when a criminal case involves only one crime and one suspect, the trial is simple and the Aristotelian syllogism is easy to apply. However, in the Maguindanao massacre, 196 suspects—led by former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan, patriarch of the powerful Ampatuan clan—were indicted by the Department of Justice.

Of the 196 indicted, only 98 have been arrested, and only 78 of those arrested have been arraigned. Having been charged with capital offenses, the accused are all detained (or jailed) pending trial. Exercising their constitutional right to independent counsel, they retained more than 20 sets of lawyers. The first thing lawyers do in capital offenses is to petition for bail. Each petition for bail, and there are 56 of them pending, is opposed by the prosecution and must be patiently heard by the judge.

During the hearings for bail, witnesses are examined. And with each new arrest, prosecution witnesses are recalled and examined anew given that every accused and his/her lawyers are entitled to confront and cross-examine the witnesses. During these bail hearings, as in every stage of the trial, facts are proven by testimonial and documentary evidence.

Judges and prosecutors. Despite the best effort of the prosecution, the Ampatuan murder cases are hamstrung by many questions raised by defense lawyers before the trial judge, and sometimes elevated to the appellate courts. Normally, appeals are made only after judgments on the merits have been rendered, but many enterprising defense counsels file certiorari petitions contesting interlocutory rulings of trial judges in appellate courts.

In the Maguindanao cases, defense lawyers have questioned the propriety of discharging some accused to testify as state witnesses, or of presenting evidence allegedly procured after the killings have occurred, or of the nonexclusion of witnesses while others were testifying. They also repeatedly move for a re-determination of probable cause. Given the many accused and their equally numerous lawyers, these issues can at times irritate and exasperate.

Fortunately, the presiding judge in these cases, Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, is both courageous and patient. She has a well-deserved reputation for competence and uprightness. Normally, due to clogged dockets, cases are heard only once a month. But because of the complexities and technicalities of these cases, Judge Reyes was relieved of all her other loads.

Now, she concentrates her full time to these cases. Mondays she devotes to hearing various motions, Tuesdays to prosecution complaints, and the rest of the week to pending petitions for bail and to the “evidence in chief” of the prosecution. Only after the prosecution has rested its evidence will the defense attorneys have their turn.

Despite being devoted and well-meaning, the judge cannot push the cases faster without the cooperation of the parties and without violating due process. Last month, the prosecution, which has already seen a change of its lead prosecutor twice, finished presenting its evidence opposing the petition for bail of the principal accused, Andal Ampatuan Jr. But it has to present its evidence in the main cases more speedily, given that it lined up 292 witnesses but has been able to call to the stand only 98 thus far.

I know that the work of the prosecutors is exacting and demanding. As I wrote in an earlier column, they have to transport witnesses from Maguindanao to Quezon City, interview them via interpreters as most of them speak neither English nor Filipino, and “persuade” them to testify, given their families’ vulnerability in their remote, insecure hometowns. Still, they must hurry up.

Long wait. Time has a way of warping justice, of making witnesses “forget” or lose interest, or become easy prey to corruption, undue influence and even to killing. They can one day “disappear” or be strangely inaccessible. Documents can be misplaced or destroyed.

To be fair, let us remember that the accused are detained and deserve speedy justice, too. They have constitutional rights to due process, to be presumed innocent till proven guilty, and to defend themselves with every weapon allowed by law. The prosecution is required to prove beyond reasonable doubt their specific participation, so the judge can determine their criminal liability and impose the proper penalty for each of them, or acquit them.

The Ampatuan murder cases will take many more years of waiting. They will have many more twists and turns, jolts and surprises. I will continue to monitor and report on them as my small contribution to the public weal. A conviction of one or more of the accused is appealable to the Court of Appeals, and eventually to the Supreme Court. These monumental cases will test our faith in the rule of law and in assuring justice even though the heavens may fall.

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