Would Chief Justice Renato Corona’s returning to the Senate impeachment court Friday save him from a fate he had sealed for himself by walking out on the senators on Tuesday?
Senate President Pro Tempore Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada on Thursday said most of the 23 senators had already “made up their minds.”
“He virtually hanged himself with that walkout,” Estrada told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview. “It’s practically suicide. Or he’s killing himself slowly.”
The defense panel insists Corona, a longtime diabetic, did not walk out on the senators, but left to seek medical attention for an attack of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
But his sudden departure after making a statement in his own defense did not look like spurred by an emergency.
“The Chief Justice of the Philippines wishes to be excused,” he said, then stepped down from the witness stand, shook hands around, and headed for the door.
He failed to get out, however, as the impeachment court’s presiding officer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, ordered a lockdown.
The Senate sergeant-at-arms, Jose Balajadia Jr., said he stopped Corona and his wife at the exit area.
“It made life easier for the senator-judges,” Estrada said, but stopped short of saying the court would hand down a unanimous verdict against Corona.
Another senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Corona’s behavior might have swayed “three or four” of his formerly “undecided” colleagues to vote for Corona’s conviction.
“He placed himself on the defensive when he disrespected the Senate,” the senator said.
Still, the defense is not losing hope. Tranquil Salvador III, one of Corona’s lawyers, said the Chief Justice would return to the impeachment court this afternoon despite being under intensive care at The Medical City in Pasig City as of Thursday.
“He will appear barring any more medical complications that might arise,” Salvador told the Inquirer.
“I believe we could still swing it given the right circumstances,” Salvador said. “Until the clock is ticking, you cannot really say it’s over.”
Until fat lady sings
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said the outcome of the trial remained unknown despite mixed reactions to Corona’s testimony on Tuesday.
“There may be some leanings (among senators) but for all you know, the closing arguments may be compelling,” Sotto said. “It’s not over till the fat lady sings.”
Corona offended most of the senators by leaving the trial without being properly dismissed.
Senator Gregorio Honasan said Corona should not have left the court nor imposed a condition on disclosing his bank deposits.
“Whether it’s in a normal court proceeding or the impeachment trial, I cannot imagine a situation where a witness imposes a condition on the judge and the prosecutors,” Honasan said in a separate interview.
Estrada said Corona had been doing fine until he suddenly left.
In a three-hour-long opening statement on Tuesday, Corona explained his finances, admitting he had four US dollar accounts, not 82 as claimed by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.
Morales had said Corona had $12 million in those foreign currency deposits, but Corona denied he had that much. He did not disclose, however, how much he kept in his four US dollar accounts.
He said he and his family had been investing in foreign exchange since the 1960s. At certain points during the trial, he looked senators and prosecutors straight in the eye and denied ever stealing from government coffers.
Substance of testimony
Salvador said the senators should “look into the substance of [Corona’s] testimony,” which was “lost amid all the high drama that was instead highlighted in media reports.”
“The case should not be decided based on the perceived disrespect of the impeachment court,” he said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan played down the importance of Corona’s return to the impeachment court.
“Considering the prosecution has expressed willingness to waive cross-examining him and that no less than the Chief Justice himself has said that the defense can rest its case should there be no waiver on the part of the 189 members of Congress, then his appearance on Friday can actually be dispensed with,” Pangilinan said.
Senator Franklin Drilon, the 189th member of Congress dared by Corona to sign a waiver for the investigation of their bank accounts, said, “Even without Corona returning, the senators already have enough materials to render a decision.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson did not exactly agree with his two colleagues, who both belong to President Benigno Aquino III’s Liberal Party.
“It is very crucial for CJ Corona to return [Friday] and subject himself to further direct [examination] and [to] cross-examination for the simple reason that a witness must go full circle in his testimony before any court of law,” Lacson said. “Otherwise, we will simply appreciate his opening statement at its face value and nothing more.”
Lacson said he would decide “after hearing the final arguments” of both the defense and the prosecution next Monday.
“That’s why during our caucus yesterday (Wednesday), I asked that we hand down the verdict on Tuesday, not Monday, to give us at least a day to weigh all the pieces of evidence even if capsulized in the final arguments,” he said.
How they will vote
The senators’ caucus decided to hold the vote next Monday night or Tuesday afternoon after the closing arguments of the defense and the prosecution.
The senators agreed to vote in alphabetical order, with Senator Edgardo Angara voting first and Senator Manuel Villar voting second to the last. Being the presiding officer, Enrile will vote last.
The senators will vote first, then they will have two minutes to explain their votes. They can ask for an extension.
Unlike in the US jury system, the senators will not retire to deliberate before they vote.
“Impeachment is different—it’s an individual decision, not a collective decision,” Sotto said. “There’s no need to argue with each other.”
When the House prosecution panel rested its case in late February, it only prosecuted Articles 2, 3 and 7 of the eight-article impeachment complaint transmitted to the Senate on Dec. 13, 2011.
The senators, then, will decide only on those three articles.
Once a guilty verdict is reached, there is no need to proceed with the voting on the other two articles.
“The penalty is removal,” Sotto said. “You can be removed only once.”
Sixteen votes are needed to convict; only eight are needed to acquit.
Truthfulness, moral fitness
When decision time comes, it will all boil down to whether Corona has been truthful in disclosing his finances.
Regardless of how the prosecutors and the defense close their cases, which a senator said would just be a summation of evidence, it may be over except for the vote.
In a text message, Senator Pangilinan said the issue would boil down to this: “The truthfulness of the entries in the sworn statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, as mandated by the Constitution, and his moral fitness to stay in office.”
Failure to report
Senator Drilon said the issue at Corona’s trial was his failure to report an asset. “A dollar account is an asset,” Drilon told reporters. “If you have a dollar account, you either report in foreign currency or in peso equivalent. But what is required is the reporting of the asset.”
Senator Sergio Osmeña III said senators had to come up with individual verdicts based on key issues. Osmeña said in a text message: “Has he betrayed public trust? Is he fit to be our highest [judicial] official? Has he conducted himself in a manner that has earned for his position, the high court and the entire judicial system, the admiration, respect and confidence of the Filipino people?”
How crucial is the issue of moral fitness?
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV said: “Moral fitness is a major issue because he has the power to deprive a person of freedom as a consequence of certain acts so justices/judges should be above every other ordinary citizen in that regard.”
Besides, he added, Corona was not an “elected official who gets to submit himself to public scrutiny and judgment every election.”
“I am ready [to vote]. To be swayed at this point by the closing arguments would be a very long shot,” Trillanes said.
Drilon said that should Corona fail to appear today and explain his accounts, he would conclude that at one point the chief magistrate had US dollars in 82 accounts, as reported by the Anti-Money Laundering Council to Ombudsman Morales.
The damaging testimony came from Corona himself and Morales, whom the defense presented as a hostile witness, Drilon said. With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and TJ Burgonio