With evidence circumstantial, SC acquits farmhand of rape-slay

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The Supreme Court building in Manila. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—Saying the defendant was convicted on mere circumstantial evidence that could not establish his guilt  beyond reasonable doubt, the Supreme Court acquitted a farmhand sentenced to prison for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur 15 years ago.

The Supreme Court’s First Division, chaired by Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, said its review of the lower court’s decision on the case of Gerald Soriano indicated that the police and prosecution’s evidence against him was weak.

“[T]he circumstances borne out by the records are severely insufficient to establish the culpability of Soriano as one may reasonably extrapolate other possible scenarios other than those pointing to his guilt,” the Court said, in a decision dated March 13 and penned by Sereno.

The other division members, Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Lucas Bersamin, Martin Villarama Jr. and Bienvenido Reyes concurred.

The Marawi City regional trial court convicted Soriano in 2002 for raping and killing the victim in Wao town, Lanao del Sur on Dec. 30, 1998. The girl’s body was discovered dumped in an irrigation canal and the medical evidence showed she was raped, had several bite marks, and died of strangulation.

The defendant had claimed the police tricked him into signing a confession. He said he later admitted to the crime because the town mayor threatened to feed him to crocodiles if he refused to confess as the culprit.

The RTC judge anchored its decision on the testimony of a witness who claimed she saw Soriano—and no one else—passing by her toward the place where the crime was committed.

The judge also cited the soiled clothes—yellow shirt and jeans—recovered by the police in Soriano’s house. Another witness claimed seeing Soriano wearing the same clothes, which were then clean, on the day the crime took place.

In 2009, the Court of Appeals discarded Soriano’s confession as inadmissible but upheld Soriano’s conviction and sentence of reclusion perpetua without eligibility for parole. He appealed to the Supreme Court.

In its eight-page ruling, the Supreme Court said that to an “unprejudiced mind,” the fact that Soriano was the only one seen by witnesses going to the crime scene “does not logically lead to any conclusion” that Soriano committed the crime.

The justices said it was possible that the first witness did not see the perpetrator, who might have used a different path to the crime scene. The finding of the soiled garments at Soriano’s home does not also automatically prove that he was guilty.

“The evidence in this case having fallen short of the standard of moral certainty, any doubt on the guilt of the accused should be considered in favor of his acquittal. The law enforcers’ missteps in the performance of the investigation and the prosecuting attorney’s careless presentation of the evidence cannot lead to any other conclusion other than that there are doubts as to [Soriano’s] guilt,” the justices ruled.

The high court ordered the Bureau of Corrections to release Soriano from the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City jail unless he is confined for another lawful cause.

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