“Ten Years, Sobrang tagal naman ng hustisya sa Pilipinas” is a comment that I have seen and heard on social and news media regarding the Ampatuan massacre case, and, of course, the questions arose, “Why did it it take so long and is this normal for a criminal case in the Philippines?”
At the start it bears stating that there is NOTHING NORMAL about this case. Consider the following: 1) The case is one of the most, if not the most, examples of election related violence that has occurred in our country 2)There were 58 victims, many of whom were members of the media; 3) The primary accused were members of the most powerful and influential family in the Maguindanao area at the time of the incident with the patriarch, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., being the Governor of Maguindanao and Zaldy Ampatuan being the Governor of the ARMM then; 4) It took a declaration of martial law to be able to arrest many of the accused; 5) Several prosecution witnesses were killed over the course of the trial; 6) There were over a hundred accused; 7) There were OVER 200 prosecution witnesses; and, finally 8) This case has been in the steady attention of non only local, but even international media.
While I cannot say that criminal cases in the Philippines are anywhere near speedy, it certainly does not usually take ten (10) years to finish it in the trial court stage. So, to answer the question, it is NOT NORMAL for a case to take this long to finish but the Ampatuan case is NOT a fair gauge of the length of time that a criminal case takes to finish because of the peculiar, or unique.
In fact, over the years, the Supreme Court has been taking major steps to try and speed up cases in our courts, both criminal and civil.
In 1998, Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act of 1998 and the Supreme Court immediately issued guidelines for its implementation by our trial courts, predominantly the implementation of strict time frames, as well as continuous trial in criminal cases. These guidelines were incorporated into the 2000 Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, particularly Rule 119 thereof, which took effect on December 1, 2000.
In 2012, the Supreme Court issued the Judicial Affidavit Rule which allowed the use of judicial affidavits to take the place of the direct examination for certain witnesses in certain cases, among them some witnesses in criminal cases.
In early 2014, the Supreme Court issued the Guidelines for Decongesting Holding Jails primarily by emphasizing the application of the rules on speedy trial as well as speeding up applications for bail in non-bailable cases.
In 2017, there was a major revamp of procedures in Criminal Cases when the Supreme Court issued the Revised Guidelines on Continuous Trial in Criminal Cases thereby implementing nationwide the rules that were piloted in Quezon City and other pilot courts in the country. This essentially codified the many different rules and issuances over the years intended to speed up trial in criminal cases.
Of course, the issuance of these rules and guidelines can only try to stem the growing problem of congested dockets of trial courts all over the country. However, the basic problem still exists in that we have too few courts and too few judges to address the judicial needs of the vastly growing population.
As I emphasized in previous articles, the basic number of trial courts all over the country was fixed in the early 80s in Batas Pambansa Blg. 129 with some additions through amendatory legislation over the years but certainly not enough to support the needs of over 108 Million People which is more than DOUBLE the population in the early to mid 80s.
Going back to the Ampatuan Case, the sheer number of witnesses, over 200 prosecution witnesses, would have already taken a long time to finish. The Supreme Court has a one-day per witness policy but this is sometimes impractical in certain cases.
Imagine this: each accused, or each group of accused represented by a different lawyer, has the right to cross-examine each witness for the prosecution. As we saw during the promulgation, there were around fifteen (15), or more, defense counsels representing the many accused. Even based on this rough estimate alone, each prosecution witness would have been subjected to fifteen (15) cross-examinations by each of these lawyers.
Likewise, there were many interlocutory incidents in the case which were also the subject of many petitions for certiorari to the appellate courts. For example, the petitions for bail of the accused during the trial, whether denied or granted, were certainly raised on certiorari to the Court of Appeals or higher, whether by counsels for the accused when denied or by the government, when granted and this is just one of the many, I’m sure, interlocutory issues.
The fact that so many lawyers were involved must have made the scheduling of trial dates nightmarish because, in order to agree on trial dates, it is necessary that the dates are those where ALL of the defense lawyers are available for the simple reason that no accused can be denied his right to his own counsel for any hearing in the case. Ask any lawyer you know, and you will be told that it is already difficult to find common dates when there are only two (2) lawyers involved, one for each opposing side. The problem is exponentially complicated with the addition of every lawyer. So, how big is the problem when dealing the court’s calendar in addition to the calendars of more than fifteen (15) defense lawyers plus the private prosecutors in the case? EXTREMELY COMPLICATED.
Going back to the basics, it must be remembered that the prosecutors in this case were burdened with the presentation of evidence to establish the guilt beyond reasonable doubt of EACH of the over NINETY (90) accused who had been arrested out of the ONE HUNDRED NINETY SEVEN (197) person charged in this case.
To be clear, this means establishing the guilt of EACH such accused for EACH of the FIFTY EIGHT (58) MURDERS in the case. Yes, there were probably common witnesses for certain parts of the 58 murders but this does not detract much from the burden to prove the actual participation of each accused in the 58 deaths involved in the case.
Thus, the accused were acquitted of the murder of Reynaldo Momay because it was found that the prosecution had failed to establish the fact of his death because, apparently, only his dentures were found but his dead body never was.
The task that was surmounted by the prosecution in this case was HERCULEAN, to say the least and I applaud the prosecution team for doing their job as well as they could under the circumstances.
Considering all of the foregoing, was I surprised that it took ten (10) years for the Ampatuan Case to be finished? Frankly, I was surprised that it did not take longer.
What I would like to point out and emphasize, however, is that it is grossly unfair to judge the judicial system in our country solely on the basis of this case. As I pointed out above, there is nothing normal in this case.
I agree that much can still be done to improve the speed at which justice is delivered under our judicial system, primarily the addition of more functioning courts, better forensic services from law enforcement, the adoption of the vast improvements in available technology and the adoption of more alternative modes of dispute resolution.
However, the present system, with the judges being compelled to do much more than what resources they are afforded should allow, does work. Maybe not as fast as we would want, but it does work.
In ending, I would like to emphasize that we cannot sacrifice justice, for each and every accused and offended party in a criminal case, for the sole sake of speed and convenience. Doing so, would turn our courts into rubber stamps instead of being the dispensers of justice that they are meant to be. After all, this is what we want and what we need for all and sundry…….. JUSTICE DELIVERED NOT JUSTICE DENIED.