Sen. Santiago: ‘Rumble after terminal boredom’
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago on Tuesday emerged from “terminal boredom” and energized the seemingly meandering impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Shortly after the hearing, Santiago fell on the floor on her way to a TV interview at the Senate media center. But she got up and appeared fine.
“I’m ready to rumble!” the former trial court judge declared in her Twitter account a few hours before joining the other senator-judges on the fifth day of Corona’s trial, where she took the floor early and asked about the respective evidence of the prosecution and the defense.
She said she wanted to expedite the trial in accordance with the principle “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Santiago said she would be a passive observer at the trial, which she described as “pretty unstructured” thus far. But she scolded Representative Niel Tupas Jr., the lead prosecutor, for not knowing exactly how many witnesses and pieces of documentary evidence his panel was planning to present.
In contrast, the lead defense counsel, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas, told the impeachment court that his team had a total of 15 witnesses on top of 23 pieces of documentary evidence already marked “to wind up our presentation.”
In the end, the impeachment court acted in favor of Santiago’s suggestion and told the prosecution and the defense to submit in three days their lists of witnesses and documents to be presented as evidence.
Technicalities protect justice
Santiago, sidelined by high blood pressure in the first week of the trial, said she was “terminally bored” while watching last week’s hearings on TV, much of which was spent marking exhibits to be presented as evidence against Corona.
She pointed out that the complexion of the proceedings was being affected by live TV coverage, and that “the presence of the observer changes the observed.”
“You know, if you shut down all the TV cameras, the proceedings will be finished in one week,” she said in a press conference before the trial. “But people want more than 15 [minutes] of fame.”
Santiago said that while the public was “not thrilled to watch the marking of evidence,” it should not “think too badly of technicalities” that “are meant to protect justice.”
“But impeachment should not be a case where triumph will belong to those who cite the most technicalities. I intend to short-cut these technicalities when they are cited,” she said, adding that this would help “determine the length of the trial.”
Santiago provided occasional humor when she asked Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the presiding officer, not to call her “lady senator.” She said it sounded like “baby senator.”
But she was all business, especially in arguing for the independence and supremacy of the impeachment court in the face of appeals to the Supreme Court to halt the proceedings.
“There may be a Supreme Court, but nonetheless, we are the sole and only high court of presidential and chief justice impeachment,” Santiago said on the floor. “We are not a senator court. We are the high court of impeachment.”
She blew her top when all Tupas could say was that his panel was ready to present at least seven witnesses Tuesday.
“But for the totality of the trial period, how many approximately do you intend to present? And don’t shake your head at me. You should have known! You should even have a trial brief!” she told Tupas.
Santiago became even more annoyed when Tupas asked to be allowed to confer with his colleagues in the prosecution.
“How many witnesses do you intend to present? You don’t even have any idea? You come to court prepared! You do not waste the time of this court!” she said.
Liberal, not technical
Santiago reminded the impeachment court that public opinion was critical to the credibility of Corona’s trial, and that the rules on the admissibility of evidence should be interpreted “liberally” lest the court be viewed as trying to hide the truth by suppressing evidence.
With the aborted impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada in her mind, Santiago warned the Senate sitting as an impeachment court that it should be ready to face a public backlash if the prosecution was barred from further presenting evidence.
Her position was echoed by Tupas who separately asked Enrile for a degree of “flexibility” in the conduct of the proceedings “without sacrificing the rights of the accused to due process.”
“We do not need jurisprudence by the Supreme Court on whether it should be liberal, or highly technical, or very strict in applying the Rules of Court,” said Santiago, explaining that the “Rules of Court itself … provides these rules shall be liberally construed so that we can achieve justice that is just, expedient.”
In case of doubt as to the admissibility of evidence, the impeachment court should just “admit the evidence,” said Santiago.
“That is what the people ruled after the Estrada impeachment trial,” she said.
Second envelope experience
To stress her point, Santiago recalled her experience as a senator-judge in the Estrada trial, in which she advocated a strict interpretation of the rules, with disastrous consequences.
“The rules technically provide that evidence in court cannot be admitted unless it is relevant to an allegation in the complaint itself. That is the so-called ultimate fact. And since there are no allegations of wrongdoing in connection with the notorious second envelope, I voted that we should not open [it] until and after the complaint had been amended,” she said.
Santiago, along with 10 other senator-judges, voted against the opening of the controversial envelope containing bank records of Estrada at Equitable PCI Bank under the name “Jose Velarde.”
The 11-10 vote by the Senate triggered the people power revolt tagged Edsa II, which eventually led to Estrada’s ouster in January 2001.
The decision of the 11 senator-judges to bar the opening of the second envelope was interpreted by the public as “hiding” or suppressing evidence, Santiago recalled.
But when the second envelope was eventually opened, there was no “incriminating” evidence against Estrada, she said, adding:
“So the suspicions against us proved to be unfounded and in fact validated by time. But it was a very painful experience in that [when we went out] in public, the people shouted incriminations at us because in their view, we didn’t want to open the evidence and naturally, they expected that something was being hidden from them,” she said.
3 days to prepare
Santiago said the “main reason” for the Rules of Court was to give the accused due notice of the charges, so that the latter would have time to prepare for rebuttal.
“Since [senator-judges] already know that the prosecution intends to call to the stand the internal revenue commissioner (Kim Henares) to produce certain income tax returns, I respectfully propose that there is already sufficient notice being given to the defendant. He should therefore make himself on notice and prepare for his defense,” she said.
She proposed giving Corona three days to prepare, so that “there should be no more argument whether we should admit evidence or not.”
“In this kind of proceeding which is televised throughout the archipelago, the more evidence we admit, the more the people will believe that our decisions have been fair. Because they will [say]: ‘What are you hiding? Why are you saying a lot about these technicalities? We are not interested in these technicalities by the Supreme Court. We have no idea about them, or whether they are correct, or whether you have a good command of English,” she said.