THE Court of Appeals has acquitted suspected pork barrel scam architect Janet Lim-Napoles of the serious illegal detention complaint filed by whistleblower Benhur Luy on grounds of reasonable doubt.
In a decision written by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro, the CA’s Twelfth Division reversed the April 2015 ruling of Judge Elmo Alameda of Makati City Regional Trial Court, Branch 150, convicting Napoles of serious illegal detention and ordered her release from detention.
“The accused-appellant Janet Lim Napoles is acquitted based on reasonable doubt. She is ordered to be immediately released from detention, unless she is confined for any lawful cause,” the appellate court said, in a decision dated May 5 that was released Monday.
Napoles will not be released from detention, however, because of the pending plunder and malversation charges filed against her by the Office of the Ombudsman before the Sandiganbayan in connection with the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam. No bail is allowed in plunder cases.
In clearing Napoles, the CA said it found the evidence presented by the prosecution “grossly insufficient to sustain a conviction” and that the crime was not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
“The essential element of serious illegal detention is that the victim was restrained or deprived of his liberty. Thus, the prosecution must show actual confinement or restriction of his person. There is no serious illegal detention where the fact of detention was not clearly established,” the appellate court said.
“In sum, in the recesses of our mind and conscience, the evident conclusion is that the quantum of evidence required in this case has not been met. We hold that the evidence against the accused-appellant is not sufficient to establish her participation or culpability in the alleged criminal conspiracy. The prosecution has not discharged its burden of proof in establishing the commission of the crime charged and in identifying the accused-appellant as the malefactor responsible for it,’ the CA said.
Associate Justices Samuel Gaerlan and Jhosep Lopez concurred with the ruling.
The appellate court said the prosecution failed to establish actual confinement because the trial court, in “rushing to convict the accused-appellant carelessly overlooked significant facts” that should have raised doubts about the credibility of the prosecution’s evidence.
Among these “significant facts” that were overlooked by the RTC was that there was no proof that Luy was forced or involuntarily brought and held against his will in Bahay Ni San Jose in Magallanes Village, Makati. It noted that the evidence showed he sought spiritual retreat there.
It also cited the testimonies of defense witnesses, Fr. Peter Lavin and Monsignor Josefino Ramirez that Luy was neither belligerent nor showed any actions to indicate he was coerced or forced to undergo spiritual retreat, while inside the facility. Luy even attended Masses every night when he was there, the CA said.
The appellate court also noted that Luy in the entire duration of his alleged confinement never attempted to escape nor tell anyone of his situation nor seek assistance from law enforcers and even bystanders on different occasions when he went out of Bahay Ni San Jose.
The CA pointed out that the prosecution also failed to present evidence that Luy was physically prevented from leaving the retreat house.
“To our mind, it is completely baffling and unexplainable how a man who alleges illegal detention had no sense of urgency to escape or seek help, at least during the latter part of his alleged detention, despite the grave offense committed against him. Such consistent behavior negates the claim that he was forcibly taken and confined by accused-appellant,” the appellate court held.
The CA also questioned Luy’s conduct during his rescue by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation, noting that based on the testimonies of the security personnel of Pacific Plaza, he violently resisted rescue and even insisted that Reynaldo Lim, Napoles’ brother and co-accused in the case, did not do anything illegal or criminal against him.
“The prosecution failed to satisfactorily explain the resistance of Luy to the rescue operation, which to our mind negates the claim of serious illegal detention,” the CA said.
It added that it finds Luy’s claim that he thought the NBI agents were out to kill him “flimsy and too convenient to warrant appreciation” since the rescuers were accompanied by his brother, Arthur.
The Court of Appeals also underscored that it is also necessary in serious illegal detention cases that there must be indubitable proof that such deprivation of liberty was the actual intent of the accused but, in this case, Luy never saw Napoles for the entire three months of his stay at the retreat house.
The prosecution only established is that Luy had a disagreement with Napoles on Dec. 19, 2012 that ended with the latter cursing him and threatening to put him in jail, the CA said.
But this was insufficient to manifest actual intent to forcefully deprive Luy of liberty since it was vague and open to different interpretations.
Lastly, the appellate court said the prosecution failed to present proof to establish that Napoles conspired with her brother to deprive Luy of his liberty, adding that the RTC’s ruling on this matter relied on conjecture insufficient to satisfy the burden of proving conspiracy beyond reasonable doubt.
While the case against Napoles’ brother was archived since he disappeared even before the RTC started the trial of the case, any further proceedings against him using the same factual circumstances may be rendered moot and academic by its decision, the CA said.
Luy, who was employed by Napoles JLN Group of Companies, had testified Napoles detained him from December 2012 to March 2013 to prevent him from revealing to authorities how she used bogus non-government organizations to get billions of pesos of pork-barrel funds from dozens of lawmakers, for fake projects.
Two months ago, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed with the CA a manifestation recommending Napoles’ acquittal in the case.
Among the evidence that he said convinced the OSG of Napoles’ innocence in the case is the fact that Luy was not restrained and was even able to see his family three times during his supposed captivity.
Calida’s manifestation prompted critics and observers to allege that the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte may have already reached a modus vivendi with Napoles, a charge that he and Malacañang has denied.
Calida on Monday lauded Court of Appeals decision.
“The decision of the Court of Appeals encapsulates the Latin maxim fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Calida said, in a statement.
“I commend the magistrates of the 12th Division of the Court of Appeals for doing what is right based on the evidence before them,” said Calida.
Asked whether this has any bearing on Napoles’ pork barrel cases, the chief state lawyer said that Napoles’ serious illegal detention case is totally different and independent from other cases pending against her.
Napoles appealed the lower court’s decision to the Court of Appeals. Since the complainant was the People of the Philippines, the Solicitor General was ordered to respond.
Luy’s former lawyer, Levito Baligod, slammed the CA decision.
“The CA gave weight to the erroneous SolGen’s position that there was inadequate evidence to support a conviction with moral certainty. While the CA decision is equally erroneous in that respect, I respect the resolution because I am professionally bound to do so,” he told reporters in a text message.
“I just hope that the gesture of the SolGen… to favor Mrs. Napoles will ultimately benefit the nation, specially in running after elusive corrupt officials in high places in government. However, I do not subscribe to such arrangements as there is a better and non-corrupt way to run after these officials.”
The Palace said the decision did not reflect a policy shift or that the administration had cut a sweetheart deal with Napoles.
Saying that the ruling has “no direct impact” on the pork barrel cases against Napoles, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella denied that Malacañang had a hand in Calida’s push to acquit Napoles.
Abella also said the separation of powers among the three branches of government “will be strictly observed under this administration.”
“President Duterte has repeatedly asserted the independence of the three branches of government. He has vowed not to interfere with the decisions of the judiciary or legislature, and assures the people that he will respect and not influence the results of their decision,” Abella said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said Napoles’ acquittal could mean the administration was ready to use her testimony to pin down legislators involved in pork barrel shenanigans but not included in the current charge sheet before the anti-graft court.
Senator JV Ejercito said he hoped Napoles would not get away from her bigger plunder case, saying she should be answerable for her crimes.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said it was a bad sign because it meant the court would not believe the testimony of Luy.
He also asked why the Solicitor General, the defender of the republic, would argue on Napoles’ behalf.
“Why is the country’s defender defending the Pork-Barrel Queen?” Pangilinan said.
Lawmakers in the House expressed dismay over the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate described the decision as “appalling” and urged the public to protest her acquittal.
“We must be very wary of this development because as things stand now many of those who have been charged of plundering the people’s coffers are getting off the hook,” Zarate said.
Parañaque City Rep. Gus Tambunting said he hopes the dismissal of Napoles’ illegal detention case would not affect the other cases filed against her as these stand on their own merit.
“Our position is that courts must be allowed to be independent, so we must also respect their processes and decisions,” Tambunting added.
Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque said he believes the Duterte administration “will use Napoles in the ongoing war vs drugs.”
“I fully understand this being the author of the whistleblower act. I do hope though that the government will still hold her liable for plunder if only to serve as an example to others, members of Congress specially, that plunder does not pay,” Roque said.
Roque said he hopes the information that Napoles has against Senator Leila de Lima will lead to the conviction of the senator on drug trafficking charges.