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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  • eirons1043

    If circumstantial evidence cannot convict then it should be removed from the Rules of Evidence. This “not proven beyond reasonable doubt thing has freed thousands of criminals to do their thing again and again.

    • tarikan

      Tama ka pre. And why rely too much on the witness “thing”. If there were no witness(es) doesn’t mean you cannot convict a perpetrator already? How bobo naman our police/prosecutors could be. Forensic evidence is the key. Forensic evidence is a scientific and it does not lie. Again how dumb our police investigators and prosecutors could be. Police – dumb, prosecutor – dumber, judges – dumbest.

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        Forensic evidence, no matter how voluminous, is still classified as circumstantial. It is time to overhaul the way evidence is appreciated in courts.

    • kokak

      Circumstantial evidence CAN convict in administrative cases. In criminal case it should be beyond reasonable doubt.

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        Circumstantial evidence can convict if it leads to no other conclusion. The problem is a lack of jurisprudence on reasonable doubt. If the defense is able to present an alternative explanation for the established facts, then there must be an acquittal.

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      It means that the standard for depriving one of liberty and, most likely, property and livelihood must be so high that it requires nothing less than moral certainty. As I posted earlier, I’m sure your perspective will change if you’ve been the subject of an unfounded accusation that someone else believes.

  • Love God

    11 years to correct a wrong? What compensation can he expect for suffering 11 years in jail?

    How many more innocents are serving capital punishment in our jails?

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      Far more than we will be comfortable to admit.

  • Paliwaweng

    ewan bakit sa mga ganitong napaka simpleng lohika bumabagsak ang marami nating mga hukom. Kaya maraming nakakulong na ‘inosente’ ang nagdudusa sa kanilang ‘sinasadyang kamangmangan’

    Napakasimple ng dahilang ng pagbaliktad ng korte suprema sa mga naunang hatol sa mas mababang hukuman ” 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”.

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      It is because you believe what you want to believe. If the judge saw the farmhand and thought he was guilty from the beginning, his jump from circumstantial to absolutely guilty wasn’t that far.

  • tarikan

    “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”. Bukels prosecutor at mga police investigators sobra bobo talaga. Baka hindi abogado si fixcal. Why rely on a witness. FORENSIC EVIDENCE have you heard of it? The girl was raped so take DNA testing. She was bitten, then take teeth marks and make comparison. Died of strangulation? Take finger prints or hand marks. How about foot prints in the crime scene? Were there shoe marks? Investigate what shoes he was wearing. Eh kung ganyan pala lahat ng kaso kailangan ang witness para ma-convict ang perpetrator, no wonder pinapatay lahat ng witness. Hindi laang 3rd world investigators/prosecutors, Jurassic intelligence pa.

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      You can’t be a fiscal if you aren’t a lawyer. However, do remember that at the time, the National Prosecution Service was expected to prosecute every case that landed before it, regardless of merit. Sa husgado ka na lang magpaliwanag, or so the thinking went. If the fiscal let the accused go free, it will be yet another tale of corrupt or incompetent fiscals. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

      The rule with circumstantial evidence is that there ought to be no other explanation other than the guilt of the accused. If the judge is predisposed to convict, then he will see what he wants to see and consider thin evidence as sufficient for conviction.

      • tarikan

        Mr. Kiko, have you heard of a house intruder/thief who was convicted (one of many suspects in the vicinity) because of bite marks? Before escaping out with his loot, he had the gall of eating an apple and leaving the unfinished portion. Good police work/forensic evidence placed him (bite marks) on the crime scene. If you consider it thin/circumstantial evidence not enough to convict then congrats to the perpetrators.

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        You’ve looked at that case assuming he is guilty. Is there another plausible explanation for the apple being there with his bite marks? Again, circumstantial evidence can convict as long as it leads to no other conclusion.

        By the way, some forensic evidence can be direct evidence of guilt, not merely circumstantial. In Filipino, nagkataon lang na ganon.

        We have made that trade-off as a society, to make sure, as much as possible, that we don’t make a mistake in a conviction. The failure of the magistrate or prosecutor to understand this, under a philosophy that any accused person should be presumed guilty unless proven otherwise, leads to an even greater social evil that we have committed ourselves to preventing.

  • kokak

    This is clearly a failure of criminal investigators. The victim’s body itself smacks of tons of evidences, and the main evidence presented was a witness who saw the suspect went to the crime scene – not necessarily saw him commit the crime. Agree with tarikan, this is Jurassic intelligence. Dapat magbasa basa ang ating mga imbestigador ng sherlock holmes o manood ng CSI.

    • ApoLapullapu

      The crime happened years ago. But even today, some police stations do not have trained criminal investigators/ Sometimes, the policeman who speaks and writes correct English is the one assigned as Investigator but he does not know the Rules of Evidence and the techniques of preparing an airtight case. Of course, there are times that policemen prepare a case in a manner that from the date of filing it is already known that the accused will be acquitted/

  • 2rey3

    The decision of the SC is quite reasonable but may I ask, where did this farmhand get the money to have his case appealed to the Supreme Court because documentation alone is very costly and of course the attorney’s fee!! What property or heirloom did he sell? Obviously his lawyer is extra generous and I would also like to commend him whoever he is. How many poor innocent people get imprisoned just because they can not afford the cost of litigation especially if one goes to the Supreme Court!!

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      Malamang Public Attorney’s Office. The case is sent to the Supreme Court as a matter of course in rape convictions, after a preliminary review by the Court of Appeals.

  • wawangpenoy

    Ganyan talaga ang mga pulis, imbestigador at prosecutor dito sa Pinas. Mga bobo at tamad. Basta lang matawag na pulis at abugado ayos na. Pag kumita na sila ayos. Walang kahit katiting na pagpapahalaga sa propesyon at ang kakapal ng mukha dahil they are so incompetent and yet, they walk proud because of their status in life.

    Anyway, maiba ako. Wala bang criminal liability ang mayor na nag-coerce sa kanya para aminin ang krimen?

    • pubringjuandelacruz

      meron…. kung mapapatunayan na sinabi tlaga ung ng mayor…
      its a classic “he-said-she-said” tale.

  • buttones

    If it is the case this guy has been incarcerated, illegally, what, if any recompense can he claim for so many years of his lost life? Can his claim for justice be pursued, and if so is this to take a similar amount of years, and will the cost of this be borne by the judicial system that sent him to jail in the first place ? There must be some Law graduates out there who can answer my question- love to hear from you…

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      Tthe only recompense he will get for his lost years is his liberty. Bills that have been proposed to rectify this tragedy have been vetoed for being too costly.

      • buttones

        Thank you for your comment. If it is the case a government can
        take away the liberty of anyone, and not even have to account, then I
        understand why we are a third world nation and why we have the UN on our backs….and the international human rights watch dogs as well….

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        That is the true meaning of impunity. We do not call our leaders to account when it is inconvenient, and we get what we sow.

    • boybakal

      Well, this accused is lucky.
      With the kind of life he has,this prisoner did not have to work hard and eat just to contain the hungry stomach. All free in prison.
      We are a third world country, nothing good to offer if you are at liberty, animal world.
      Isang kahig, isang tuka….that is how life is.
      Nothing lost while in prison except little time.

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        I assume you’ve never been inside a prison or a jail inside the Philippines, to think that a detention prisoner has it good while inside. If you are innocent, it is a fate worse than death. I have seen innocent people put in prison whose lives were ruined afterwards.

  • boybakal

    How about the victim….dead, rape and murdered.
    Just because of short of moral certainty….no justice for the poor victim.

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      What is justice for the victim? Must someone else pay for another’s crime, or should we lower the standard for punishment? Either way, I’m sure your perspective will change once you have been falsely accused because in our culture, an accusation is a conviction.

      • boybakal

        Your reasoning is great. Mostly based on law and logic.
        Either you are a retired judge or a law professor.
        Law student cannot expound and digest law with the way you do.
        Combined with little of everything much more with wisdom acquired thru years of reading and practice of law.
        Hats off….but what happened to the victim….oblivion.

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        That’s entirely within the realm of law enforcement. We should hold our police and investigatory agencies to a higher standard. Let’s hope they don’t rest until they find the real perpetrator of this evil, with evidence that actually stands in court. That’s the best that we can do to for the victim.

      • boybakal

        How sure are you that the accused was wrongly charged.
        SC justices and whoever that ponente was…said short of moral certainty.
        What moral certainty? It is rape and murder.
        That is the problem….we based our decision on too much books.
        The best judgement is the judgement called common sense.
        No need to think or expound….it is right there in your face that even ordinary or ignorant knows who the perpetrator is…

      • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

        The problem is that common sense can be quite wrong. The problem is, precisely, that we don’t know if the accused is wrongly charged. I can’t say that the accused here was guilty; I haven’t had the opportunity to weigh the evidence.

        What you propose is something that strikes at the very heart of what we consider fair. Should we be okay with the possibility of sending one who is innocent to punishment, or should we play safe, just in case the accused really is guilty? Should we lower the bar for criminal liability, and allow more innocent people to spend time for crimes they did not commit? The system is not foolproof now; do you wish to make it even easier to right a wrong with another wrong? I think you do.

        This is what lies at the heart of the books you so disdain.

        Again, just because someone was raped and murdered means that just anyone can be held accountable for it, especially one who had absolutely nothing to do with the rape and murder. I don’t think you’ll understand this, especially as you deem it convenient to hide behind some pseudonym. Perhaps you don’t want others to know your views and judge you wrongly.

        Don’t get me wrong. Nothing would make me happier than to see justice done for the poor victim. If we exact “justice” by placing the collective wrath of society on one who does not actually deserve it, are we really exacting justice? I think not. Anyway, that’s not how the system works.

  • boybakal

    With evidence circumstantial, SC acquits farmhand of rape-slay.

    Lahat ng kriminal, murderer, rapist, homecider kung Circumstantial lang ang ebidensiya
    dapat wag ng hulihin at litisin.
    Sayang lang ang gastos, dahil abswelto rin ang labas.

    • http://twitter.com/FrancisAcero Kiko Acero

      Isn’t it amazing how our perspective changes when the accused is charged with graft?

  • $16638896

    pambihirang justice systrem natin, napakabagal. sana ginawa nalang nya tlga un to justify his stay in jail..anyway, at least may justice pa rin. magaling lawyer nya.

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