After some two weeks of fire and fury at the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, the outlines of a central narrative have emerged, one quite apart from the matter of the evidence itself, which remains incomplete, even if the bits and pieces that have dribbled out so far have roused millions of observers across the country into seesawing throes of instant judgment from day to day. No, what has fast coalesced in the public mind concerns the two opposing platoons of legal minds that constitute the prosecution and defense panels – the first said to be a bunch of inept, callow cubs as personified by the often tongue-tied Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., the other a brilliant coterie of veteran counsels led by that quick-witted lion, former Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas.
There is a fair amount of truth to this meme. From the beginning, when the prosecution caused the adjournment of the trial’s second day with an unexpected manifestation of unpreparedness, Tupas and company have often appeared as bumbling amateurs with their muddled, seemingly ad hoc presentation of their case. In contrast, Cuevas’s unflappable demeanor, his vast command of the law and the legal system and the tough but always courteous and crystalline way he defends the interests of his prized client, have turned not a few Corona detractors into grudging admirers, that respect spilling over to Cuevas’ equally articulate cohorts in the defense table.
Until Sunday night, that is, when Corona’s defense team hastily summoned the press for what it said was “shocking” news. They had information from “a very reliable source,” claimed Corona’s lawyers, that Malacañang was actively manipulating the trial with a P100-million bribe offered to each of the senator-judges to oppose the TRO earlier imposed by the Supreme Court on the subpoenaed dollar accounts of Corona with the Philippine Savings Bank. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa was said to have made the call to senators, obviously at the behest of President Aquino himself.
Asked for the identity of the source, however, the defense, which had railed all this time against the prosecution team for what it said was a vicious campaign of hearsay and gossip against the Chief Justice, invoked lawyer-client confidentiality and refused to name names. A day later, upon prodding by incensed senator-judges who found themselves having to deny any pressure from the Palace, defense counsel Jose “Judd” Roy III offered a non-answer answer: “It’s not the name of the source that matters… I can’t be of help, because I really don’t have a name to give.”
And there it was – the “shocking” revelation turning out to be a dud. In fact, not only a dud, but a startling blunder on the part of the defense, a sort of last-stand spasm that only made Corona out as desperate to preempt or game the Senate’s expected resolution on the high court TRO, while also needlessly antagonizing the impeachment court with a flatly unsubstantiated allegation. Roy had no choice but to grovel for forgiveness the morning after.
What were Corona’s bright lawyers thinking? Tellingly, Cuevas himself wasn’t at the press conference. It’s difficult to imagine his astute tactician’s mind lending its imprimatur to this bald instance of overreach by his erstwhile impressively disciplined team. What it did not only provoked convulsive laughter, if not yawning, among those who had expected something truly game-changing from the grim, breathless lawyers intoning grave words last Sunday. Their puny caper – which apparently banked on the public getting all excited about the political cloak-and-dagger stuff that it wouldn’t care to demand the veracity of their claim by the simple identification of their “very reliable source” – also shattered, perhaps once and for all, the veneer of invincibility that had grown around Corona’s top-caliber barristers.
It turns out the hapless prosecution team isn’t the only one capable of idiotic behavior, after all. The defense, too, once it felt it was on the ropes, fearing it would be KO’d by a clincher of a ruling by the impeachment court, could also lose its marbles, thrash around and make a messy spectacle of itself. Now, unless it shores up its accusation with actual, verifiable names, with evidence that can be subjected to the same fine-toothed scrutiny it demands for everything lobbed against Corona at the court, Cuevas and company won’t be as formidable-looking anymore as they once were. One instance of panicked, self-wounding behavior, and poof!, they’re now as mortal as their foes.