Beyond the shadow of doubt?

SC acquits Webb, 6 others in Vizconde massacre

By Edu Punay
The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Hubert Webb and six others convicted for the highly publicized Vizconde massacre almost two decades ago walked off the national penitentiary as free men after the Supreme Court acquitted them based primarily on inconsistent testimonies of state witness Jessica Alfaro during trial.

Voting 7-4, the High Court ruled that the Paranaque regional trial court erred when it handing down in Jan. 2000 the guilty verdict on Webb, Hospicio "Pyke" Fernandez, Antonio "Tony Boy" Lejano, Michael Gatchalian, Peter Estrada, Miguel "Ging" Rodriguez and Gerardo Biong for the crime of rape with homicide.

The High Court overturned the verdict of Paranaque RTC Branch 274 Judge and now CA Justice Amelita Tolentino, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals on Dec. 15, 2005 and had sentenced the primary accused to life imprisonment.

Biong, who was convicted as accessory for destroying evidence, was released last month after serving his sentence of 12 years.

“There is no more motion for reconsideration can be filed. That would be tantamount to double jeopardy,² Court Administrator and SC spokesman Jose Midas Marquez told a press conference, citing a rule in criminal procedures prohibiting a second prosecution against the same person under the same offense after acquittal or conviction by court.

But Marquez stressed that declaring the guilt was not proven beyond reasonable doubt is not tantamount to establishing innocence of the accused.

The 38-page decision penned by Associate Justice Roberto Abad cited "reasonable and lingering doubt on the guilt of the accused" and "failure of prosecution to establish the guilt beyond reasonable doubt."

"In our criminal justice system, what is important is, not whether the court entertains doubts about the innocence of the accused since an open mind is willing to explore all possibilities, but whether it entertains a reasonable, lingering doubt as to his guilt. For, it would be a serious mistake to send an innocent man to jail where such kind of doubt hangs on to one's inner being, like a piece of meat lodged immovable between teeth," the SC stressed. [...]

Click here to read full text.


The final decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on this case as released in the media, basically boils down to and focuses on the credibility of the testimony of the "star witness" versus the alibi of the accused.

Here is a summary of the decision as reported by ABS-CBN:

1.) Quality of witness - Jessica Alfaro was a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) asset, not really an eye witness. At first, she told the NBI she would bring in a witness to the commission of the crime, but when she couldn't do so, she said she would play the role of eye witness.

2.) Suspicious details in some testimonies;

3.) Quality of testimony (inherent inconsistencies);

4.) Supposed corroborations which are unreliable.

For those interested, you can grasp more understanding of the case's decision by reading a copy of the full text of the decision which may also be found at the following link:

Supreme Court decision on Webb et al re Vizconde Massacre

Now, if we take a look at how the justices voted on the case, the Supreme Court en banc voted: 7-4-4 (7 in favor, 4 dissented, 4 abstained).

The reasons why the four Associate Justices abstained were:

1.) Antonio Carpio (because he testified during the hearings at the Regional Trial Court);

2.) Mariano del Castillo - (because one of the accused is a client of the law firm of his wife);

3.) Presbitero Velasco - (close relation to a party);

4.) Antonio Nachura - (who signed as former Solicitor-General before his appointment to the court).

In other words, not half (but almost very close to half) of the number of justices deemed that there are reasonable shadows of doubt in the credibility of the testimony of the prosecution's star witness.

In the imperfect world full of mistakes and uncertainties, one desperate proverb says: "It is better to wrongfully free a guilty person than to wrongfully punish an innocent man."

Because of the inherent imperfections of the man-made system of justice, democratic governments presume any accused person to be innocent unless proven guilty beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt.

So in my personal opinion, the en banc voting of 7-4-4 is not convincing enough. The final decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on this particular case is not very solid, thus perhaps leaving a reasonable shadow of doubt in the minds of many people.