Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blood under the bridge

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
THE SUPREME Court’s verdict is out, and it is final. Webb et al., accused and convicted for the crimes of rape and murder now known as the Vizconde massacre, have been acquitted and are walking free after spending 15 years in prison.

One of the things that bothered me about this case (and I have not heard it being stressed enough) is that the suspects, who became the accused in this case, were identified in 1995 or thereabouts, some four years after the crime happened in 1991. Four years is a long time, enough time for the real rapists and murderers to cover their tracks and produce believable alibis in case someone squealed on them and they became the suspects. It is also enough time for the evidence to get cold and for potential prosecution witnesses to conveniently lose their memory or vanish from the face of the earth.

Although the seven former convicts were acquitted, questions remain in people’s minds. But in the judgment of the seven justices who voted for acquittal (as against the dissenting four and the inhibiting four), the seven convicts could not be found guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Well, only God and the people around each of them at the exact time and immediately after the crime was committed could say if the acquitted did or did not commit the crime of the decade. Two decades later many of us ask: What should we believe?

If there is one person who is “morally certain” of the guilt of the acquitted—then and until now—it is Mariano Mison who was head of the National Bureau of Investigation in 1995 when Task Force Jecares was formed. I had a long interview with him at that time and found his “If only I could talk” statement most puzzling. When the accused were convicted in 2000, I tracked down Mison (then already retired) and sprang his 1995 statement on him. He remained steadfast in his belief (bolstered by fearful “silent witnesses”) and did not entertain doubts that innocent young men may have been sent to prison. And, yes, he talked. No more “if only.”

I do not wish to resurrect the entire 2000 news story based on that interview in this column as that would be like contesting the high court’s judgment, or dousing water on the Webbs’ rejoicing and deepening the wound of the bereaved and aggrieved Lauro Vizconde. The justices have spoken, period.

But it could be said that Mison brushed aside remarks of celebrity lawyers and intellectuals who openly looked down on the judgment of Regional Trial Court Judge Amelita Tolentino (she is now with the Court of Appeals) and belittled her background as a former bank employee. (She was valedictorian of her law class.) She had done a good job, Mison assured, and it will not be easy for the Supreme Court to overturn her decision, the deriding legal know-it-alls notwithstanding.

I asked him: What if the high court does? “The perpetrators of the crime,” he said “will have served many years in jail by then.”

But will the poor judge go down in opprobrium? (The Court of Appeals would later uphold her decision.) Mison answered, “The convicts could be proven legally innocent on a mere technicality, but that does not mean they are morally innocent.”

Going back to the issue of the length of time that lapsed (four years) after the crime was committed and before the suspects were apprehended and prosecuted, I would like to say that I now see the importance of keeping a record of our whereabouts. I am not obsessive-compulsive and do not keep a daily journal, but I do keep a pocket calendar-planner where I write appointments, trips and events I need to attend. The calendar-planners I have kept date back to as far as the 1980s.

In the small compartment near the driver’s seat of my car, I keep two pencils (ball pens dry up in the heat) and a note pad so that I can quickly note down numbers and signs as soon as the car stops in traffic. Once while on a bus to Baguio, I witnessed men with long arms drag a driver out of his seat and drive off with the car. I took down the plate number and was aiming with my camera when my companions pulled me down.

What if I would need to prove where I was on a particular day? What if I would need to prove that I saw so-and-so or witnessed something? Or that I heard something being said while walking on the corridor on my way to an interview?

I have actually dug into my old calendar entries to refresh my mind on certain events and actions I have taken in the past. I am not a keeper of little stuff but I now realize that it might be important to keep old passports, airline tickets, boarding and gate passes and even baggage tags. Remember, accused Hubert Webb showed proof of travel (but not his original passport) in order to bolster his alibi that he was in the United States when the crime was committed, proofs that the judge and, later, the Court of Appeals found weak when compared to witness accounts.

Anyway, all that have been overturned in Webb et al.’s favor.

I wonder, will someone someday do a Truman Capote and write a definitive “In Cold Blood” type of work in the “new journalism” true-crime genre? That is, if and when the real criminals are found and found guilty. The 20-year prescription period will soon be over. There are only six months left for the authorities to find them before the case lapses and the blood in this case joins the water under the bridge. Are we back to square one?