The Acting Secretary of Justice: Error or Something Else?

Amidst a storm of public protests and faced with mutiny from his own lieutenants (the Department’s high level career prosecutors ), Acting Secretary Agra stands pat on his unpopular decision to move for the discharge of Autonomous Region of Muslin Mindanao (ARMM) Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and former Maguindanao Vice Governor Akmad Ampatuan from the criminal charges stemming from the Maguindanao Massacre.

The Resolution has been the subject of all manner of punditry from armchair lawyers to conspiracy theorists.  In essence, most critics decry both the unholy speed by which the Secretary issued his decision and the fact that he sustained the legally weak defense  of alibi over positive testimony of one of the witnesses.   Adding my own two cents worth to these, most litigators will tell you (as well as anyone else who has had experience petitioning the DOJ) that if there’s one thing that the Department is NOT known for, it’s promptness.  Setting aside the possibility that the Acting Secretary may have precisely chosen to break with this particular DOJ tradition, it is still puzzling that he would act contrary to what prosecutors have historically been inclined (even told) to do , which is to prosecute in the event of conflicting evidence.

Whether Secretary Agra (a former advocate of volunteer legal aid for the poor) deserves the vilification that he is receiving today depends on another question which has only been asked implicitly — whether the resolution to absolve two of the high profile principals in the massacre constitutes simple error which is arguably the Secretary’s to make or rather bears the earmarks of something more sinister.

During the earlier part of my legal career, I was part of the team of private prosecutors that appeared in the case of “People of the Philippines v. Hubert Webb.” Webb, the son of a Philippine Senator, was one of the accused in the brutal rape of Carmela Vizconde and the slaughter of the entire Vizconde household.

Immediately after Hubert Webb was indicted, he questioned the finding of probable cause against him by the DOJ Panel despite producing exculpatory evidence in the preliminary investigation consisting of, interestingly enough , alibi.  Specifically, he presented documentary evidence that would supposedly place him in the United States  at the time that the crime was committed.

The Supreme Court, in Webb v. De Leon [GR No. 121245 (23 August 1995)], ruled that faced with “conflicting pieces of evidence,” the DOJ correctly found probable cause to indict the accused. It also explained that probable cause was synonymous with “probability of guilt” and therefore required a LOWER QUANTUM AND QUALITY of evidence than that required for conviction, to wit:

Given these conflicting pieces of evidence of the NBI and the petitioners, we hold that the DOJ Panel did not gravely abuse its discretion when it found probable cause against the petitioners. A finding of probable cause needs only to rest on evidence showing that more likely than not a crime has been committed and was committed by the suspects. Probable cause need not be based on clear and convincing evidence of guilt, neither on evidence establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt and definitely, not on evidence establishing  absolute certainty of guilt. As well put in Brinegar v. United States, while probable cause demands more than “bare suspicion,” it requires “less than evidence which would justify . . . conviction.” A finding of probable cause merely binds over the suspect to stand trial. It is not a pronouncement of guilt.

Considering the low quantum and quality of evidence needed to support a finding of probable cause, we also hold that the DOJ Panel did not, gravely abuse its discretion in refusing to call the NBI witnesses for clarificatory questions. The decision to call witnesses for clarificatory questions is addressed to the sound discretion of the investigator and the investigator alone. If the evidence on hand already yields a probable cause, the investigator need not hold a clarificatory hearing. To repeat, probable cause merely implies probability of guilt and should be determined in a summary manner. Preliminary investigation is not a part of trial and it is only in a trial where an accused can demand the full exercise of his rights, such as the right to confront and cross-examine his accusers to establish his innocence. In the case at bar, the DOJ Panel correctly adjudged that enough evidence had been adduced to establish probable cause and clarificatory hearing was unnecessary.

In other words, the Philippine Supreme Court directs that if the Secretary were to err in the exercise of quasi-judicial powers of determining probable cause, he should do so on the side of INDICTING the accused, instead of setting him free.

From all accounts, the Acting Secretary seems to be as astute as any individual who had previously held his position.  Thus, it becomes difficult to justify his decision on account of a mere catastrophic failure to appreciate the ruling in Webb v. De Leon.  Yet the other conclusion is simply too scary to contemplate.

About Ronald Dime:

Find all posts by Ronald Dime


Leave a Reply