FIREWORKS FLEW at the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel last Monday as two opposing lawyers in the trial of the accused in the Maguindanao massacre faced each other. They were prosecution lawyer Harry Roque, representing the families of the victims, and defense counsel Howard Calleja, representing former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan (and not the other defendants), one of the principal accused.
In brief, the point of contention was that Zaldy Ampatuan was denied his right to due process. Calleja said his client has not yet been subjected to a preliminary investigation, which is the right of any accused. The case against him was dismissed by then Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra who did not find probable cause against him. However, he was again included among the defendants with the change of administration, without a preliminary investigation. “All we’re asking for is to be given our right to a preliminary investigation,” Calleja said.
Roque countered that Ampatuan has already been investigated by several fiscals who found probable cause against him. “What the defense is asking for is dilatory,” he said.
The issue has been raised to the Court of Appeals (CA) which is taking its own sweet time in deciding a simple case. If the trial is delayed, blame the CA justices.
Calleja said Ampatuan has not asked to be a state witness. What he said was that he wanted to tell what he knows about the massacre, no matter who gets hurt, even if it includes his own father and brother. He is not asking for anything in return, Calleja emphasized. He did not ask to be a state witness. He is not asking to be excluded from the list of defendants. He just wants to tell the truth and get it out of his conscience.
A prosecution witness said Ampatuan was present during a family meeting that planned the massacre, and therefore he conspired with the others to commit the mass murders. But Ampatuan claims he was in Malacañang Palace at that time, and he has photographs with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to prove it.
If he was in Malacañang, what can he testify about the family meeting where the massacre was planned? Roque asked. And didn’t his mere presence in the planning session make him a conspirator?
No, Calleja said. Even if Ampatuan did not object or protest, even if he had agreed to the plan, that does not make him a conspirator. The legal definition of a conspirator is one who has done a covert act to further the commission of the crime, Calleja explained. Ampatuan has not done any such thing. In fact, he was in Manila at the time of the massacre.
Doesn’t that make him a suspect? Most masterminds make it a point to be seen elsewhere at the time a crime is committed so they could have an alibi.
The fact that Ampatuan took pains to be in Malacañang and have himself photographed with the President at the time of the massacre makes him suspect. And anyway, Roque said, a witness has testified that he was present in the meeting. She saw him during that meeting.
Ampatuan cannot be in two places at the same time, countered his defense lawyer. Photographs can’t lie.
The two lawyers were asked how long the trial would last. Consider this: There are at least 107 prosecution witnesses and there are about the same number of defendants. Each defendant is entitled to his own lawyer, and each defense counsel is entitled to cross-examine each witness. And each prosecution witness will first undergo direct examination by prosecution lawyers. Then the defense will present its own witnesses, each of whom will be subjected, in turn, to direct and cross examination. Now take out your calculators and figure out how long such a trial would last.
By Roque’s own computation, it would last more than 100 years at the present pace of the trial, by which time all the defendants would be dead.
Can’t the trial be hastened? the two lawyers were asked. The crime seems to be a simple open-and-shut case. The victims, the corpus delicti, are there. The suspects are there. Their motive is strong. There are witnesses. It is not a complicated case. Why the need for so many witnesses?
Roque replied that they are thinking precisely of that: reducing the number of witnesses to hasten the trial. We want to concentrate on the Ampatuans, the masterminds, he said. The rest can come later.
Calleja, although he does not represent the other defendants, said that in the interest of justice, those who are innocent of the crime should be dropped from the roster of defendants as quickly as possible. The crime is non-bailable, so all the accused are locked up in jail until the trial is completed and those who are innocent are acquitted.
Shouldn’t the trial be held the whole day, every day, to hasten it? Shouldn’t the judge be relieved of the other cases in her court so she can concentrate on the trial of the massacre? Imagine the court transcripts that the judge would have to wade through when making her decision. Just writing the decision will take a very long time. The decision must be a foot thick. What is the Supreme Court doing to help the judge?
The discussion led to the very slow administration of justice in the Philippines. Both lawyers agreed, this time, that the justice system needs reforms to speed up the resolution of cases. The first of these reforms is to increase the number of judges so that the court dockets are not clogged. The second is for the judges and prosecutors to work harder and longer, and in the case of judges not to grant postponements so readily.