The Supreme Court has overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision that sustained the 2011 order of the Office of the Ombudsman dismissing from the service for grave misconduct 10 Navy officers charged in 1995 for the death of Ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño.
In a resolution, the SC’s First Division cleared Capt. Ricardo Ordoñez, Cdr. Reynaldo Lopez, Cdr. Alfrederick Alba, Lt. Cdr. Luidegar Casis, Lt. Cdr. Joselito Colico, Machinery Repairman 2nd Class Sandy Miranda, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Welmenio Aquino, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Mil Leonor Y. Igacasan of administrative liability.
Apart from the eight navy officers, the SC also overturned the CA’s 2013 decision upholding the Ombudsman’s dismissal order against Lt. Cdr. Ruben Roque and Petty Officer 1st Class Carlito Amoroso.
But Roque and Amoroso were not among those who filed the SC petition that challenged the CA’s 2013 decision.
The SC ruling, which was promulgated last May 14 and released only last July 12, stressed that “a finding of guilt in an administrative case may be sustained for as long as it is supported by substantial evidence that the respondent has committed the acts charged.”
In the case of the 10 navy officers, “the Ombudsman failed to support its conclusion of administrative liability with sufficient factual and legal basis,” the SC said.
“In view of the foregoing, the Nov. 22, 2011 Joint Order, as it relates to the administrative aspect of the complaint, must be struck down for being violative of petitioners’ right to due process,” the high court held.
Court records showed that BRP Bacolod City, a Navy cargo ship, left Tawi-Tawi on Sept. 20, 1995, and after seven days made its last stop-over in Sangley Point in Cavite. On the same day, the ship departed for the Navy headquarters in Manila, its final destination.
Enroute to Manila from Sangley Point, Pestaño was found dead inside his cabin, lying on the bed with a single gunshot wound on his right temple.
The CA’s decision noted that investigations conducted by the Senate and the Armed Forces of the Philippines ruled out that Pestaño committed suicide, and that during the probe it was unearthed that Pestaño knew that the ship was carrying “undocumented lumber.”
Pestaño’s parents, spouses Felipe and Evelyn, filed cases before the Ombudsman against those involved in their claim that their son was killed.
In a resolution dated June 15, 2009, the Ombudsman dismissed the criminal and administrative charges against the 10 PN officers with a ruling that there was “no substantial evidence to show that [their] actions transgressed some established and definite rule of action or constitute unlawful behavior or gross negligence.”
Pestaño’s parents filed a motion to reconsider the dismissal of the charges.
On Nov. 22, 2011, then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales reversed the 2009 resolution issued by then Deputy Overall Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro.
Morales, ruling that the circumstances negated the theory that Pestaño committed suicide and that foul play surrounded his death, ordered the filing of murder cases against the 10 Navy officers and dismissed them for grave misconduct.
The officers elevated the case to the CA, which affirmed the Ombudsman’s 2011 order. They subsequently filed a petition with the SC.
“The (Ombudsman’s) joint order concluded that the totality of circumstances points to a prima facie conclusion that Philip’s death was not a case of suicide, that there was an attempt to cover it up, and that there was a prima facie conclusion that petitioners conspired to kill him, hence probable cause for murder lies against them,” the SC noted.
However, the SC said that the joint order did not state how this finding of probable cause tied into the finding that petitioners were guilty of grave misconduct.
“There was no attempt in the joint order to establish the parameters of what constitutes grave misconduct, much less if such parameters applied to the petitioners,” it said. “It seems to imply, therefore, that the Ombudsman was of the idea that administrative liability would arise out of a finding that the petitioners are guilty of the crime.”
However, the SC said the Ombudsman’s resolution of the criminal aspect of the complaint was not a finding of criminal liability.
“It is only a determination of probable cause to bring petitioners to trial in a criminal case. A finding of probable cause needs only to rest on evidence showing that, more likely than not, a crime has been committed and was committed by the suspects,” it said.
“Such is insufficient to hold petitioners administratively liable. The quantum of evidence needed in an administrative case is greater than the evidence needed in a preliminary investigation to establish probable cause, or to establish the existence of a prima facie case that would warrant the prosecution of a case,” it ruled.