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Bad week for prosecution ends with music to its ears

The past week didn’t augur well for the prosecution in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. But it wasn’t all gloom for the prosecution after Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile made one ruling that was music to its ears.

He held that the hearsay evidence rule does not apply fully because the impeachment trial is not a criminal case. He had earlier said, to the prosecution’s dismay, that it was “akin to a criminal case.”

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Courtroom trials usually decide questions of fact (the usual “whodunit,” the twists and turns of a plot as revealed by witnesses) and questions of law (the debates on confidentiality, immunity from testifying, or the standard of proof required). For the prosecution, it was a bad week either way.

Monday was a total waste of everybody’s time. The Senate looked into one question of fact that didn’t even pertain to Corona’s guilt or innocence: Who was the source of the leaked Corona bank documents: Was it someone within PSBank? Or the Anti-Money Laundering Council? Or the Bangko Sentral? The questioning led nowhere but merely opened one possibility that was fraught with mischief: that maybe it was a government agency that was the culprit.

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The Senate’s seeming obsession can be read either of two ways. One, most innocently, that it jealously guarded the integrity of the trial, and wouldn’t let the prosecution trifle with the rules. Or two, and more worrisome, that the senators were annoyed that the prosecution thought they could pull a fast one on them and had taken them for fools.

Tuesday was the most dramatic in both the cinematic and juristic sense. Enrile’s temper exploded at the prosecution as he labeled the impeachment complaint defective and threatened to send it back to the House to be corrected.

That day, the prosecution completed its presentation of evidence on Article 2 of the impeachment charges, namely, that Corona did not file accurate statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) and concealed properties and bank accounts. It then moved on to Article 3 which charges Corona with being morally unfit to be a judge: flip-flopping, for instance allegedly reopening decisions that have become final; compromised judicial independence when his wife was appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the governing board of the Camp John Hay Development Corp.; and meeting with the bereaved father in the Vizconde massacre, that is to say, meeting litigants ex parte, in private and behind the back of the opposing party.

Just to give the larger picture, an earlier witness, a Philippine Airlines (PAL) union officer, had already testified on the flip-flopping on the PAL labor dispute. On Tuesday, the prosecution was poised to offer the testimony of a PAL vice president on the VIP perks that PAL allegedly gave to Corona but Enrile blocked it altogether.

Article 3 rests

Enrile could have allowed the PAL vice president to testify. After all, if the Chief Justice received benefits from a party litigant in a case he was going to decide, surely this lay at the heart of Article 3 on judicial impropriety. Instead Enrile read the rules most strictly, saying that the VIP perks pertained to “bribery” which was nowhere in impeachment Article 3. The fundamental rule is that evidence may be offered to prove only such facts that were alleged in the complaint. To the prosecution, he said: If you insist on this evidence, go back to the House and revise the articles of impeachment afresh!

That is why by Wednesday, the prosecution rested its case on Article 3. They opened the day by dropping several charges under Article 3, including those involving Mrs. Corona’s John Hay appointment and the Vizconde murder. However, they retained the charge on flip-flopping, and they wouldn’t present any more evidence on Article 3.

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De Lima testifies

That set the stage for the presentation of evidence on Article 7 charging Corona with allegedly “engineering” the issuance of the temporary restraining order (TRO) that would have allowed Arroyo and her husband to escape punishment in corruption and election fraud investigations against her. The prosecution presented as its witness no less than Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who testified on three watch-list orders that she had issued to ensure that the Arroyos remained within Philippine jurisdiction while under investigation.

The Supreme Court issued a TRO lifting the watch-list orders but imposed three conditions: the posting of a P2-million bond, assignment of an agent to receive court orders in the Arroyos’ behalf, and notice to local consulates each time they land in a country abroad. De Lima testified that when Arroyo was blocked at the Naia, it was because she hadn’t fulfilled all those conditions. This part of De Lima’s testimony was accepted by the Senate.

Hearsay testimony

However, another part of her testimony was stricken off as hearsay. De Lima also testified that CJ Corona had allegedly maneuvered things so that it would appear that the conditional TRO was already effective. She relied on the internal court deliberations narrated in the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.

But the Senate had earlier denied their plea to subpoena the high court justices and documents, citing interdepartmental equality and courtesy, and the high tribunal, from its end, issued a resolution barring court personnel from testifying unless specifically allowed by the high court itself. The problem then was that the behind-the-scenes action to fudge the ineffectiveness of the TRO all happened during the executive sessions of the court, privy to none but the justices themselves. They would need Sereno personally to testify.

Sereno dilemma

By the time the week ended, the prosecution was searching for ways to get her to appear voluntarily sans a subpoena. Their dilemma is that, under the high court’s resolution, she would need the court’s prior permission. Moreover, the defense has already argued that even if she restates her full account set forth in her dissenting opinion, that is merely one version of events that cannot prevail and be believed—“hook, line and sinker,” said chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas— over the majority opinion that carries the vote of the rest of the justices. Finally, it would expose Sereno to questions already raised in various newspapers that, no different from Corona, she had also failed to make a full report in her SALNs.

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TAGS: chief justice renato corona, corona impeachment, Corona SALN, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile
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