The prosecution is in a hurry to rest its case against Chief Justice Renato Corona as swiftly as it pushed the impeachment complaint to the Senate after collecting 188 signatures of congressmen in a record time of three hours in a single day.
Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., the lead prosecutor, stunned the Senate impeachment court when he announced on Feb. 28, the 25th day of the trial, that the House panel was done, confident it had presented “overwhelming evidence” to convict Corona on charges of betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution.
Tupas announced that the House leadership and the prosecution team had agreed to drop Articles 1,4, 5, 6 and 8 of the impeachment complaint.
Its case has now narrowed down to Article 2 (Corona’s nondisclosure of his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, or SALN); Article 3 (lack of probity, integrity and independence resulting in flip-flopping decisions); and Article 7 (irregular issuance of a temporary restraining order, or TRO, on the hold-departure order on former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo).
The decision was not an orderly retreat for the prosecution, whose case had increasingly been falling in disarray during the past two weeks.
Before adjourning Day 25, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, presiding judge of the impeachment court, announced that the trial would resume on March 12, but not before he gave the prosecution until the weekend to submit a formal offer of documentary evidence and Corona’s lawyers five days to respond. The prosecution is pressing for a decision on the case by March 21.
But Enrile also warned prosecutors against claiming that they had presented overwhelming evidence to convict Corona.
“You are putting this court in a very serious predicament because you already make pronouncements about the weight and the quantum of the evidence that you have presented for your side,” Enrile said.
“Please do not make sweeping statements outside that may befuddle or confuse the people or confuse them that you’ve won,” he added.
At the same time, Enrile signaled that he was opening the way for an early presentation of the defense, saying it would be in Corona’s best interest to take the witness and testify on Articles 2 and 7. “To me, he needs to explain only two things, Articles 2 and 7,” he said.
In Article 2, the prosecution has noted discrepancies between Corona’s entries in his SALN and the actual value of his properties and peso bank accounts.
Enrile explained that the reason behind the decision of the prosecution to drop five of its eight articles.
“If they pursued (the rest of the articles), they could not secure the required votes to remove the respondent using the five articles that they have removed … They didn’t want to waste their effort on these anymore,” he said.
By the time Enrile announced the holiday break and the resumption of the trial on March 12, the prosecution panel was observed running short of breath and there were questions whether they would physically collapse from battle fatigue together with their case.
Out of ammunition
The prosecutors had run out of witnesses and evidence to feed into their contracted case, and there were times when Tupas appeared to be freezing the ball to buy time.
The prosecutors seemed to have expended their ammunition after they had dumped most of their explosives into the public arena in the campaign to pulverize Corona in an infernal trial by publicity outside the impeachment court.
The prosecutors are hoping that the Coventry incineration tactics would reduce Corona into cinders, or to use Rene Saguisag’s ill-suited metaphor “damaged goods,” in his own version of rush to judgment even before the House panel had even introduced a scintilla of evidence into the impeachment court.
Tupas has threatened to inundate the court with 100 witnesses early in the trial, but most of them are nowhere to be found.
On Feb. 29, he claimed, after he announced the prosecution had dropped five of its eight articles, his panel had presented only 17 witnesses and 166 documents for Article 2 (its centerpiece article); one witness and 16 documents for Article 3; and seven witnesses and 65 documents for Article 7.
The withdrawal by the prosecution of the five articles drove Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago into a rage, lambasting the prosecution for airing charges that they now refused to prove, saying that they had compromised Corona’s “moral position.”
“I am terribly concerned that this might constitute unethical behavior in this trial court,” Santiago said. She wondered whether the prosecutors “acted in good faith” when they told the impeachment court in a legal compliance submitted in January that they would present evidence and witnesses for eight articles.
“Now you turn around and say you don’t want to do that,” she said. “That’s what the law calls frivolous if when you say, ‘I don’t want to present evidence on eight. I only want to present evidence on five.’”
She said her suspicion was bolstered by the prosecution’s continuing habit of announcing that its evidence can already prove Corona’s guilt.
“I am very concerned that the prosecution has been acting in bad faith all along because you tell so many things to media when you can file an official manifestation to this court. You insist you are already winning the court battle because you have proof beyond reasonable doubt. Good grief, that is contempt of court,” Santiago said.
She repeated an earlier charge that the prosecution’s discussion in press conferences of charges they planned to prove was a case of trial by publicity and was a a clear prejudgment of Corona’s case.
What is the complicity of the media in this trial by publicity? They are the natural conduit of information on the trial. But when the prosecution unloads to media information and conclusions on the case outside the court, they are complicit to trial by publicity based on material that might be considered by the Senate tribunal as in contempt of court and prejudging the case.
It is worse if the media oversteps its responsibility to disseminate news when media commentators write judgments on the merits of the case, preempting the court’s decisions.
We have not been commissioned or appointed official media-jurors. To act as one would be arrogantly presumptuous. We don’t have such a mandate.