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With Due Respect

Revilla’s battle for bail

The denial of bail by the Sandiganbayan (SBN) to detained Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. (and his coaccused Janet Lim Napoles and Richard Cambe, the lawmaker’s aide) is a significant legal victory for the Office of the Ombudsman (OOO) and for President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” (straight path) program.

Constitutional right. According to the Constitution, “the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proven” and “shall, before conviction, be bailable…” except for (1) those charged with offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment (2) when the evidence of guilt is strong.

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Revilla and his coaccused were charged by the OOO with plunder in connection with the pork barrel scam, for which the prescribed penalty is reclusion perpetua. Per the normal procedure, the SBN—after determining the existence of probable cause—ordered their arrest and detention without bail.

After five months of hearings on the motion of the accused for bail, the SBN’s First Division (composed of Justices Efren de la Cruz, chair; Rodolfo Ponferrada and Rafael Lagos) rendered a 71-page resolution, summarized by the antigraft court itself, as follows:

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“In fine, the prosecution has duly established that there exists strong evidence that accused Revilla, Cambe and Napoles, in conspiracy with one another, committed the capital offense of plunder… and thus are not entitled to the constitutional right to bail. However, the Court cautions that such conclusion shall not be regarded as a pre-judgment on the merits of the case that are to be determined only after full-blown trial.”

The SBN ruled that the evidence of guilt was “strong” after the OOO’s prosecutors, led by Joefferson Toribio, presented several witnesses (including whistle-blower Benhur Luy, an Anti-Money Laundering Council official, a National Bureau of Investigation agent, and a Commission on Audit officer) and several documents.

Noting that the prosecution witnesses did not see the delivery of the tainted funds to Revilla, the defense relied on only one witness, a handwriting expert, who testified that the signatures on the documents linking the senator to the scam were forgeries.

Factual issue. The issue of whether the evidence was “strong” enough to justify the continued detention of the accused is essentially “factual” in nature. The ruling shows that the SBN justices were convinced of the prosecution witnesses’ credibility.

True, the accused have asked the SBN for a reconsideration, saying the resolution was “speculative” and, failing in that, may elevate the ruling to the Supreme Court via a petition for certiorari. This petition may prosper on only one ground: grave abuse of discretion, specifically, that the SBN acted whimsically or arbitrarily.

Seldom, however, does the Supreme Court reverse trial courts (like the SBN) in their factual assessments. This is because the high tribunal relies merely on the records or transcripts of the proceedings while trial judges observe the demeanor of the witnesses on the stand, thus:

“The demeanor of the person on the stand can draw the line between fact and fancy. The forthright answer or the hesitant pause, the quivering voice or the angry tone, the flustered look or the sincere gaze, the modest blush or the guilty blanch—these can reveal if the witness is telling the truth or lying in his teeth. Absent then a showing that the conclusions of the trial court are arbitrary or without basis, they must be regarded with respect and accepted as conclusive on appeal.” (People vs Espinosa, Dec. 20, 1989)

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And in another case (People vs Rivera, Oct. 1, 1993), it held: “Timidity, forthrightness, surliness, belligerence, indignation, embarrassment, hesitancy, glibness, evasiveness, insolence—these and many other indicia define the credibility of the witness on the stand. The opportunity of the trial judge to observe all these characteristics places him in a better position than the appellate court in resolving controversial issues of fact.”

Judgment “on the merits.” Nonetheless, the SBN wisely sounded the caveat that the resolution, lengthy and detailed as it already is, was not “a pre-judgment on the merits of the case that are to be determined only after full-blown trial.”

To repeat, the only issue resolved in the SBN’s “interlocutory” resolution was whether the evidence of the prosecution was “strong” enough to justify the continued detention of the accused. It was not a final judgment finding guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.” As the SBN pointed out, final guilt “on the merits” is to be determined only after hearing the full evidence of the parties.

Thus, to clarify, courts use three escalating standards in assessing culpability in a criminal case: (1) to determine whether to arrest and detain the accused, the standard is “probable cause” as shown by the “information” (or charge sheet) and its attachments, (2) to continue such detention, “strong evidence,” and (3) to convict, “proof beyond reasonable doubt.”

I am not prejudging the guilt of the accused. Indeed, “Hindi pa tapos ang laban.” All I am saying is that the SBN’s denial of bail is a significant though not final victory for the OOO and the President. Had the SBN found the evidence to be “not strong,” one would wonder how the prosecution could show “proof beyond reasonable doubt,” the most stringent standard needed to convict.

Otherwise stated, a grant of bail would have been a stinging loss for the government and a soothing victory for Revilla.

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TAGS: beyond reasonable doubt, Janet Lim-Napoles, pork barrel scam, probable cause, Senator Bong Revilla, strong evidence
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