The Supreme Court has set aside the conviction for homicide of Aquila Legis Juris fraternity member Fidelito Dizon and instead found him guilty of a lesser offense of reckless imprudence that resulted in the death of Leonardo “Lenny” Villa 21 years ago during the organization’s initiation rites.
The high tribunal said four other fraternity members—Antonio Mariano Almeda, Junel Anthony Ama, Renato Bantug Jr. and Vincent Tecson—were also guilty, like Dizon, of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.
The court’s second division, chaired by Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, set aside the original conviction by the lower court—Dizon for homicide and Almeda, Ama, Bantug and Tecson for slight physical injuries.
The prison sentences of the five were modified to four months and one day as minimum and four years and 2 months as maximum.
The five were also ordered to pay the Villa’s heirs P50,000 as civil indemnity and moral damages in the amount of P1 million, plus legal interest on all damages awarded at the rate of 12 percent from the date of the finality of the decision until satisfaction.
In a 68-page decision written by Sereno, the high tribunal recommended that Congress amend the Anti-Hazing Law “to include the fact of intoxication and the presence of nonresident of alumni fraternity members during hazing as aggravating circumstances that would increase the applicable penalties.”
Associate Justices Antonio Carpio, Arturo Brion, Jose Perez and Bienvenido Reyes concurred in the ruling.
The Supreme Court set aside the findings of the Court of Appeals in January 2002 which found only two accused—Dizon and Artemio Villareal—guilty of homicide. They were sentenced to 17 years in jail. Villareal died last year. All of those convicted had been set free.
The appellate court had also held liable for slight physical injuries Tecson, Ama, Almeda and Bantug who were meted 20 days imprisonment.
“Attributing criminal liability solely to Villareal and Dizon—as if only their acts, in and of themselves, caused the death of Lenny Villa—is contrary to the appellate court’s own findings. From proof that the death of the victim was the cumulative effect of the multiple injuries he suffered, the only logical conclusion is that criminal responsibility should redound to all those who have been proven to have directly participated in the infliction of physical injuries on Lenny,” the Supreme Court said.
Grave abuse of discretion
The justices said the appellate court committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in finding Tecson, Ama, Almeda and Bantug criminally liable for slight physical injuries.
The charge sheet initially included 35 fraternity members of whom 26 were found guilty of homicide in November 1993 by Caloocan Judge Adoracion Angeles. Nineteen of the suspects were later acquitted on appeal by the appellate court—a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Villa was with seven freshmen law students of the Ateneo de Manila Law School who underwent the initiation in a house in Caloocan. A violent hazing commenced, with the freshmen beaten repeatedly. The following day, the neophytes were made to present plays and play a rough basketball game.
Six more hazing-related deaths took place after Villa’s death, leading to the enactment of the Anti-Hazing Law in 1995.
Had the Anti-Hazing Law been in effect then, the five accused would have been convicted of hazing, which is punishable by life imprisonment. The justices said that they were constrained to rule according to existing laws at the time of his death.
The Supreme Court accepted that fact that the bruises found on Villa’s arms and thighs, resulting from repeated blows, caused the loss of blood of his vital organs and his eventual death. It also noted evidence showing that the accused fraternity members were drinking during the initiation rites, but discounted the threats they made on Villa and the other neophytes during the hazing as part of the traditional rituals.
No intent to kill
The Supreme Court justified its affirmation of the Caloocan court’s earlier finding that “none of the fraternity members had the specific intent to kill Villa.”
The justices said on the night before the commencement of the rites, the neophytes were briefed on what to expect. They were told that there would be physical beatings, that the whole event would last for three days, that that they could quit anytime.
Villa had also consented to the initiation ritual, having asked his parents for permission to join the fraternity. Even after going through the fraternity’s grueling tradition rituals—mainly being beaten by a paddle on the arms and legs—during the first day, Villa continued and completed the second day of initiation.
“Even if the specific acts of punching, kicking, paddling and other modes of inflicting physical pain were done voluntarily, freely and with intelligence, the fundamental element of criminal intent was not proven beyond reasonable doubt. On the contrary, all that was proven was that the acts were done pursuant to tradition,” the high court ruled.
The absence of malicious intent, however, did not mean that the accused were ultimately devoid of criminal liability, the justices said, adding that there was “patent recklessness” in Villa’s death.
“The collective acts of the fraternity members were tantamount to recklessness, which made the resulting death of Lenny a culpable felony. It must be remembered that organizations owe to their initiates a duty of care not to cause them injury in the process,” the justices said.
“It is truly astonishing how men would wittingly—or unwittingly—impose the misery of hazing and employ appalling rituals in the name of brotherhood. There must be a better way to establish ‘kinship,’” the tribunal said, citing testimony in the lower court by one neophyte who admitted he joined the fraternity to have more friends and to avail himself of the benefits it offered, such as tips during bar examination, and another initiate who said he did not give up, because he feared being looked down upon as a quitter and because he felt he did not have a choice.
“For Lenny Villa and the other neophytes, joining the Aquila Fraternity entailed a leap in the dark. By giving consent under the circumstances, they left their fates in the hands of the fraternity members. Unfortunately, the hands to which lives were entrusted were barbaric as they were reckless,” the justices said.
Originally posted: 9:17 pm | Monday, February 20th, 2012