Overhauling the criminal justice system

The Supreme Court knows only too well that our people are carefully watching how the Maguindanao massacre trial is handled. Without breaching the basic rights of the accused, the Court has tried to assuage public anxiety, by closely monitoring the proceedings and by issuing press statements detailing the progress of the cases.

US and Spanish systems. However, beyond monitoring and hastening the “trial of the century,” the Supreme Court faces the herculean job of reforming—yes, overhauling—the criminal justice system. This is not an easy task because our criminal justice system was copied from two countries, which have diverse philosophies and processes.

Specifically, our Penal Code, which defines crimes and prescribes their penalties, was copied mainly from Spain. On the other hand, the procedure for enforcing the Code and for judging who are liable for violating it was borrowed from the United States. The Spanish system, like those in many European countries, is inquisitorial; judges actively take part in the gathering of evidence and in the prosecution of crimes.

In contrast, the US system is adversarial; judges are passive, neutral, “cold,” and rely on the parties to introduce evidence and to prosecute or defend their causes. We follow the US system; Filipino judges just listen most of the time and do not participate in the gathering and introduction of evidence.

In the United States (and in Spain, from 1996), juries decide criminal cases. The judge rules on legal issues while the jury, which is composed mainly of nonlawyers, weighs the evidence and determines the guilt or innocence of the accused. Our rules of criminal procedure, which to repeat were adopted from the United States, bar irrelevant or immaterial evidence to protect juries from imbibing extraneous information.

Yet, we have no juries and thus have little reason to be restrictive. Here, the judge who is a seasoned lawyer decides both factual and legal issues and writes the judgment personally. Nonetheless, our rules sanitize the proceedings as if the judge were a layperson.

Protective of accused. Also, our rules protect the accused from media exposure to prevent hype and talk from influencing judgments. However, judges, unlike juries, are trained to ignore external pressures. Public opinion rarely affects decisions of truly objective and discerning judges.

So, too, judges are often bedeviled listening to lawyers argue interminably on whether the questions asked were leading, relevant, or material, when in the end the answers would not really affect the judgment in any way.

The Supreme Court has partially addressed this problem by issuing last Sept. 4 (to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013) the “Judicial Affidavit Rule,” under which witnesses will no longer be examined via tedious and lengthy questions to procure their direct testimonies. Instead, the parties will just submit their affidavits in a language known to the witness, accompanied by their translation in English or Filipino. Of course, the opposite party will still be entitled to cross-examine the witness.

Unfortunately, this Rule will not help expedite the Maguindanao massacre trial because it does not apply to criminal cases in which the maximum imposable penalty exceeds six years, unless the accused agrees to the use of such affidavits. In Maguindanao, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

Our Constitution is extra protective of the rights of the accused, because it was crafted in partial reaction to the perceived wanton persecution of militants and human rights advocates during the martial law regime. Unfortunately, these same rights are now used, sometimes abused, by the powerful and privileged to hinder, baffle and frustrate justice.

How to prevent the misuse of these rights without violating the equal-protection guarantee is part of the delicate task of overhauling the criminal justice system. The Court will need to review and recalibrate many well-intentioned rules, which ironically are used to delay and stymie justice.

Joint responsibility. In general, an appeal can be made only after a lower court has rendered a final judgment. However, jurisprudence allows, as an exception, a petition for certiorari against interlocutory orders (that do not dispose the case with finality) grounded on grave abuse of discretion.

While this exception is justified when grave abuse of discretion is obvious, reckless petitions for certiorari have caused needless delays and harassment of lower court judges. Whenever a higher court entertains these certiorari petitions, the criminal case below is normally suspended even if later on after many years, the petition is adjudged to be unmeritorious.

Worse, judges have to take time from their trial schedules to prepare their comments, arguments or memoranda to defend themselves from the certiorari proceedings indicting them of grave abuse.

To be fair, the overhaul of the criminal justice system is not the sole responsibility of the judiciary because cases begin with the careful investigation of crimes by the police, plus the diligent evaluation of evidence and methodical prosecution of the crimes by the prosecutors of the Department of Justice.

Lack of space bars me from elaborating, except to say that, indeed, the speedy dispensation of criminal justice is a joint responsibility of both the executive and judicial branches of government, and even of the legislative, in terms of enacting laws that accurately define and properly penalize crimes.

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