SC hastens Maguindanao massacre cases

Unknown to many, the Supreme Court issued “motu  proprio” (on its own volition) a resolution, dated Dec. 10, 2013 (a copy of which I got a few days ago), instituting five new measures or guidelines to speed up the Maguindanao massacre trial.

Most gruesome crime. Recall that four years ago, on Nov. 23, 2009, the most gruesome crime of our time was discovered; 58 defenseless civilians (34 were media workers) were shot, mangled, killed and “back-hoed” in Maguindanao province. Charged with murder were 197 officials, policemen and coconspirators in 58 separate “informations” (the legalese word for formal written accusations).

The 58 informations (that evolved into 58 separate murder cases) were originally filed in the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Maguindanao, but later transferred by the Supreme Court to, and consolidated in, the RTC of Quezon City, Branch 221, presided over by Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes. To enable her to devote full time to these sensational cases, Judge Reyes was relieved of all her other cases, and assigned two assisting judges.

Meanwhile, three of the accused have died. Of the 194 remaining, 106 are detained without bail because they are charged with the capital offense of murder, but the other 88 accused have eluded arrest and are still at large.

Judge Reyes hears the consolidated cases thrice a week from morning to afternoon but the trial on the merits has not begun because the hearings have been devoted mostly to the petitions for release on bail of 64 accused (8 Ampatuans, 42 police officers, and 14 civilians) represented by 39 sets of lawyers.

Thus far, the cases have accumulated 71 volumes of case records and 38 volumes of transcripts of stenographic notes (TSN). A total of 139 witnesses have testified; 560 petitions, motions and manifestations have been filed by the parties, of which 427 have been resolved. These stats are intimidating and unprecedented.

Five new guidelines. Indeed, the cases have become tedious and complicated, even though they are hardly at midstream. Hence, the Supreme Court resolved  pro hac  vice  (for this case only) to:

1. “DIRECT the Presiding Judge … to implement the Judicial Affidavit Rule…” Under this Rule, witnesses are no longer examined in open court via lengthy questions and answers. Instead, the parties are required to submit affidavits in a language known to the witnesses, accompanied by their translations in English or Filipino. The adverse party, however, can cross-examine the witnesses.

Actually, the Judicial Affidavit Rule was promulgated much earlier by the Supreme Court, on Sept. 4, 2012, but its effectivity was suspended at the request of the public prosecutors who pleaded lack of time and personnel to prepare the affidavits. However, the Court, recognizing the need for speed, decided to implement the rule in the Maguindanao cases.

2. “ENJOIN the Presiding Judge … to hold, based on her discretion, separate trials for the accused against whom the prosecution contemplates no further evidence and, accordingly, have the case submitted for decision with respect to them…”

3. “AUTHORIZE the Presiding Judge to issue, when appropriate, separate decisions or resolutions … in any of the 58 cases being heard without waiting for the completion of the presentation of evidence for all the accused.”

Items 2 and 3 are very important. Ordinarily, judgments are rendered only after all the testimonial and documentary evidence for and against all the accused have been heard, offered and ruled upon by the trial court. Given the numerous accused and witnesses, and the voluminous documents, the court would take decades to render a single final judgment.

However, under these two Supreme Court guidelines, judgments can be issued “in installments,” say on the Ampatuans first, then on some policemen, etc., while proceedings against the other accused, especially those still at large, may still be going on.

4. “DESIGNATE a third Assisting Judge to handle the conduct of nontrial incidents … such as arraignment and pretrials.” This will allow Judge Reyes to focus on the trials.

5. “AUTHORIZE the Presiding Judge and the Assisting Judge … to resolve petitions, incidents and motions … despite the pendency of some … matters in the higher courts.”

Normally, when petitions are filed in the higher courts (like the Court of Appeals) challenging interlocutory orders of the trial court, the trial court stops its proceedings in deference to the higher courts, thereby indefinitely delaying the trials.

Fresh hopes. Harry Roque, the private prosecutor representing 15 of the media workers and two others, hailed the “judiciary’s attempt to accord speedy justice. But the Executive, as part of the overall judicial pillars, should do its share in reexamining the number of accused and the grant of compensation to the victims.” I am sure Justice Secretary Leila de Lima will respond quickly and prudently to his plea.

Aside from helping in the criminal cases, Roque, who serves pro bono, also asked the Anti-Money Laundering Council to freeze the bank assets of the accused and filed administrative charges in the National Police Commission for the dismissal of the accused policemen.

The Maguindanao massacre cases are a litmus test of our judicial system and the officials tending it (especially the President and the justices). The Supreme Court directives raise fresh hopes that these cases would move much faster and that partial judgments could be rendered soon on some of the accused.

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