Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Thursday hit back at the lawyers of Hubert Webb who had accused her of using the reinvestigation of the June 1991 Vizconde massacre as a vehicle for her purported political ambitions.
In a statement e-mailed from Germany, De Lima said she was standing by her decision to make public the results of the fresh inquiry of the National Bureau of Investigation into the murder of Estrellita Vizconde and her two daughters, of which Webb and six coaccused were acquitted by the Supreme Court on Dec. 14, 2010.
De Lima said that should the Webbs file suit, she would take it “as an opportunity to defend the reinvestigation and clarify its objectives as a legitimate exercise to uncover the truth.”
She said the reinvestigation was not intended to pin down Webb and company, and was aimed at “revisiting” the evidence that the Supreme Court had deemed insufficient to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
Deference to high court
According to De Lima, the NBI did not reexamine the evidence in order to reopen the case, in deference to the high court’s ruling and to the principle of double jeopardy.
“However, both these reasons … are not a license for the Webb family to prevent a review of the evidence in the case of Hubert Webb et al. for purposes of searching for the truth,” she said.
De Lima said a reinvestigation could help the government go after “other suspects not yet brought to justice and whose prosecution is not yet barred either by prescription or double jeopardy.”
“The enforcement agencies of the government are not precluded from establishing new facts and evidence that will help in exposing the truth and in further prosecution of the Vizconde case,” she said.
She said the accusations of electioneering and subversion of the law made by Webb lawyer Jose Luis Agcaoili were “unfair and uncalled-for.”
“I humbly ask them to refrain from further imputing bad faith and ulterior motives … and to bring the discussion … to the level of sobriety and temperance … befitting members of the bar,” said De Lima, an election lawyer.
“I call on the Webb family’s counsels to be more circumspect in their statements, as I will, with all candor, face any case that they find appropriate to file against me,” she said.
De Lima said in her statement that while she understood the “emotional response” of Webb and his family to her announcement of the NBI findings, his lawyers should stop “further [fanning] the flames of their anger and frustration.”
She reminded them that aside from providing legal services, lawyers “are hired to temper the emotions of those who feel aggrieved.”
She pointed out that the reinvestigation of the case was “pursuant to a presidential directive.”
At a news briefing on Tuesday, De Lima announced the NBI findings that cast doubt on Webb’s alibi that he was in the United States when the Vizcondes were murdered in their Parañaque City home.
But she acknowledged that Webb could no longer be taken to court in connection with the case despite the new evidence.
Shortly after the briefing, she flew to Germany to attend a conference on human rights issues.
The justice secretary said she was ready to face any case that would be filed against her.
“While it is within the Webb family’s right to file whatever contempt or disbarment case against me, the charges of electioneering and subversion of the law are a different matter,” she said, adding:
“It does not give them or their counsels the right to hurl unwarranted and malicious accusations that I have intentions other than legitimate in spearheading the reinvestigation of the Vizconde massacre.”
In Malacañang, President Aquino expressed support for De Lima, saying she was just doing her job as justice secretary when she presented the NBI findings.
“What is [De Lima’s] function? To serve the ends of justice. And that’s what the evidence pointed to, according to her,” he told reporters.
The President echoed De Lima’s earlier contention that two of the accused in the case were not taken into custody by the court and could still face charges if new evidence would back their prosecution.
“Let us not forget that there were two [other accused] … There’s a concept of law that says when the accused is not in our territory, the prescription period won’t [apply],” he said.
Mr. Aquino said Webb and his family could take their complaint against De Lima to the proper venue.
“We have a democracy in place. We’re supposed to be governed by the rule of law. If the aggrieved party thinks that there is basis, then they can file the appropriate charges in the appropriate forum,” he said.
Asked if De Lima still had his support, the President said: “Yes.” With a report from Norman Bordadora