Appeals court acquits Napoles
Detained businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, the suspected brains behind the P10-billion pork barrel scam, has scored a legal victory in her efforts to win back her freedom.
The Court of Appeals (CA) has nullified the conviction of Napoles in the criminal case filed by her cousin, Benhur Luy, who had accused her of locking him up inside an upscale subdivision in Makati City to prevent him from spilling the beans on the pork barrel racket.
The appeals court’s 12th Division issued the ruling on the heels of Solicitor General Jose Calida’s rather unusual manifestation seeking Napoles’ acquittal.
“[A]fter thoroughly delving into the records of the instant case and painstakingly assaying the evidence adduced by the parties, we find the evidence grossly insufficient to sustain a conviction,” the court said in its May 5 decision, a copy of which was obtained by reporters on Monday.
It said the crime was not proven beyond reasonable doubt. “In rushing to convict (Napoles), the trial court carelessly overlooked … significant facts which would have normally engendered doubts as to the credibility of the prosecution’s evidence.”
The resolution was written by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro, with Associate Justices Samuel Gaerlan and Jhosep Lopez concurring.
The decision came almost two years after Napoles was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison by a Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) for illegally detaining Luy.
Luy is one of the principal witnesses in the plunder case against Napoles, tagged as the mastermind of the pork barrel scam that involved former Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla and other legislators.
The pork barrel, officially called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), was meant to ease rural poverty but instead went to ghost projects of nongovernment organizations set up by Napoles and lined the pockets of legislators.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan is worried the pork barrel cases filed against Napoles would be placed in jeopardy following the appeals court’s ruling.
“This is a bad signal because first, it means that the court does not believe the testimony of Luy who is the key witness in the PDAF cases or the pork barrel cases. What will happen to the PDAF cases?” Pangilinan said in a statement.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon did not think the pork barrel cases would be affected as these were separate from the serious illegal detention case. Drilon also said Napoles would remain under detention because she was still facing plunder cases.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said “these are interesting times,” noting that Calida has reviewed the case against Napoles.
In a statement, Calida said “justice prevailed” in the appeals court, adding that it “encapsulates the Latin maxim fiat ‘justitia ruat caelum’—Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
“Some sectors make a big deal out of this case because it involves Janet Lim-Napoles. However, as the principal lawyer of the republic, [I believe] this is just a simple criminal case wherein the evidence does not support the conviction of the accused,” Calida said.
No Palace hand
Malacañang said it had no hand in the acquittal of Napoles.
“The Duterte administration has never, will never and can never enter into sweetheart deals. It’s very strict on the observance of the rule of law and following constitutional due process,” presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo told reporters.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said as much in a separate statement. “[The] government is clear that there is no policy shift on how we deal with Napoles. Neither is there an agreement forged between the Duterte administration and Napoles,” Abella said.
The Palace officials said that Napoles’ illegal detention case “has no direct impact on her pork barrel cases.”
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the government might use Napoles’ testimony to initiate a review of the cases involving the PDAF scam.
Ready to be state witness
Stephen David, one of Napoles’ lawyers, said his client was ready to turn state witness in the plunder case as she was “not the most guilty.”
David said the Napoles camp would move for a house arrest for his client. “If she would be allowed to be a state witness, she should be protected.”
He expressed confidence that Napoles’ acquittal in the serious illegal detention case would eventually lead to the dismissal of the string of plunder and graft cases she was facing in the Sandiganbayan.
He admitted that the appeals court’s ruling was not enough to free his client from detention as she was still standing trial for at least five separate cases of plunder, a nonbailable offense.
He said the antigraft court would issue a commitment order for Napoles’ transfer from the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong City, where she is being held after Judge Elmo Alameda of Makati RTC Branch 150 handed out her conviction in April 2015.
In its ruling, the appeals court’s three-member division said the testimonies of Luy and seven other witnesses were “inadequate to establish actual confinement or restraint.”
It said there was “no indubitable proof” that Luy was forcibly held by Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim, in Bahay ni San Jose, a retreat house owned by Napoles in Magallanes Village.
In fact, the court said Luy even attended the nightly Mass with priests who were with him during his stay in the retreat house from Dec. 19, 2012, until he was supposedly rescued by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation on March 22, 2013. —WITH REPORTS FROM CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO AND NIKKO DIZON
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