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With Due Respect

Only 180 days for plunder trials

How long will the trial of the pork barrel plunder cases last? Answer: The Supreme Court directed trial courts “to terminate the regular trial within 180 days, or the trial by judicial affidavits within 60 days, reckoned from the date trial begins, minus the excluded delays or postponements specified in Rule 119 of the Rules of Court and the Speedy Trial Act of 1998.”

Analysis. These 180- and 60-day limits apply to all criminal cases whenever the accused is/are detained pending trial, per a resolution of the Supreme Court dated March 18, 2014. “Regular trial” refers to the question-and-answer method of examining witnesses while “trial by judicial affidavits” is conducted via the submission of affidavits. Let us analyze the high court’s order.

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First, the time limits shall be “reckoned from the date trial begins.” However, before trial can begin, the case must first be raffled, which the edict says should be held “within three days from the filing of the information.” The pork plunder cases were actually raffled to the First, Third and Fifth Divisions of the Sandiganbayan (SBN) one week after they were filed, four days beyond the 3-day limit.

Also, under the resolution, “the trial court shall arraign the accused within 10 days from the date of the raffle.” Again, this limit was breached. The arraignment took place much later because the three divisions had to determine first the existence of probable cause, and to issue the warrants of arrest.

The resolution further says, “The [trial] court shall hold the pre-trial conference…  within 10 days if the accused is under preventive detention… ” Again, this limit was not followed.

Pretrial is conducted by the judge and the parties “to consider the following: (a) plea bargaining; (b) stipulation of facts; (c) marking for identification of evidence of the parties; (d) waiver of objections to admissibility of evidence; (e) modification of the order of trial if the accused admits the charge but interposes a lawful defense (like self-defense); and (f) such other matters as will promote a fair and expeditious trial…” Given alone the “truckloads” of documents to be marked as exhibits in the three SBN divisions, the pretrial could be quite lengthy.

Second, other than the foregoing, there are other incidents and proceedings prior to trial, like:

(1) Motion for bail. The detained accused, including the three senators, filed separate motions for bail. Here, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to show that the “evidence of guilt is strong.” If the prosecution fails in this task, the accused are entitled to be released on bail. How to speed up the bail hearings, under the same resolution of March 18, was discussed in this space on June 29 (“Supreme Court speeds up bail hearings”).

(2) Motion to suspend the detained senators as provided under the Anti-Plunder Law. Whether Congress will recognize such suspension and for how long (whether for 90 days only or for the duration of the trial) are open questions.

(3) Motions for reconsideration, for bills of particulars, for medical treatment, for hospital arrest, for a better detention site, for postponement, to quash the information, etc.

Third, apart from these, the resolution excludes the “delays specified in Rule 119 of the Rules of Court and the Speedy Trial Act.” These are:

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(a) “any period of delay … concerning the accused, including [those] resulting from … [their] physical or mental condition, or from … [their] other criminal charges [in other SBN divisions], or from extraordinary remedies against interlocutory orders, or from pre-trial proceedings, or from orders of inhibition [and] change of venue, or from prejudicial question, or … proceedings under advisement; (b) … absence or unavailability of essential witnesses; (c) … mental incompetence or physical inability of the accused to stand trial;” (d) refiling of a previously dismissed charge; (e) when a co-accused who had been at large is arrested and joined in the case; and (f) in general, delays which the trial court believes “outweigh the best interest of the public and the accused in a speedy trial.”

If you are confused and beguiled by these excluded delays, don’t be surprised if creative lawyers invent more perplexities to further befuddle you.

Fourth. The SBN orders resolving the above items would surely be elevated to the Supreme Court. If the Court issues temporary restraining orders, the trial could be indefinitely delayed.

At bottom, considering the complicated nature of plunder, the very many accused, the numerous witnesses, the “truckloads” of documentary evidence, the many exceptions to the March 18 resolution, the many other incidents prior trial, and the diverse rulings on some of these incidents by the three SBN divisions, I think the plunder proceedings will definitely exceed the 180- and 60-day limits.

In fact, a final decision by any of the three divisions in five years (that’s 10 times the 180-day limit) would be phenomenal, given that the plunder trial of President Joseph Estrada in one SBN Special Division took over six years, yet there were only three accused, fewer witnesses and less amount of evidence.

Hastening the pork plunder cases is indeed a major challenge. Unjustified delay carries a heavy sanction because, to quote the resolution, “[t]he case[s] against the detained accused may be dismissed on ground of denial of the right to speedy trial in the event of failure to observe the above time limits.”

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TAGS: artemio v. panganiban, opinion, plunder, Plunder trials, pork barrel, pork barrel scam, Supreme Court, With Due Respect
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