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325 Phil. 576

[SYLLABUS]

[ G.R. Nos. 96178-79, March 29, 1996 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. EDUARDO ESMAQUILAN, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

ROMERO, J.:

For the death of Police Corporal Rogelio Dedal and Pablo Esteban, two separate informations for murder were filed on August 13, 1984 by First Assistant Provincial Fiscal Bonifacio J. Pagunsan against Eduardo Evangelista alias "Eduardo Panaguiton," Eduardo Esmaquilan, and the following persons all surnamed Mondia: Danny alias "Baby," Herman, Sr., Herman, Jr., Gilberto, Edwin, Edgar alias "Yongyong," Rizaldy, and Alderico.

Trial was initially conducted by Judge Rodolfo C. Soledad of the Regional Trial Court of Surallah, South Cotabato, Branch 26, from the arraignment of the accused until the prosecution rested its case.  Thereafter, Judge Cristeto D. Dinopol presided. After hearing the entire version of the defense, as well as the testimony of Primitivo Fabian, lone eyewitness of the prosecution who was recalled to the stand, Judge Dinopol rendered a joint decision dated July 15, 1988, the dispositive portion of which reads as follows:

"IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, judgment is hereby rendered:

1. In Criminal Case No. 314-B, the accused Eduardo Evangelista, Herman Mondia, Jr., Edgar Mondia, and Eduardo Esmaquilan are found guilty beyond reasonable doubt as principals of the crime of murder. There being no modifying circumstances to consider, the Court sentences Herman Mondia, Jr., Edgar Mondia and Eduardo Esmaquilan to suffer the penalty of Reclusion Perpetua; while the accused Eduardo Evangelista(,) with one mitigating circumstance in his favor(,) is sentenced (to an indeterminate penalty of imprisonment) from Fourteen (14) years, Eight (8) months and One (1) day of Reclusion Temporal as minimum to Seventeen (17) years, Four (4) months and One (1) day of Reclusion Temporal as maximum.

The said accused Eduardo Evangelista, Herman Mondia, Jr., Edgar Mondia, and Eduardo Esmaquilan are sentenced to pay jointly and severally the Heirs of Rogelio Dedal the sum of Thirty Thousand (P30,000.00) Pesos, Philippine Currency, for (sic) reimbursement of actual expenses incurred in relation to the death of Rogelio Dedal and to further indemnify jointly and severally the Heirs of Rogelio Dedal by reason of Rogelio’s death in the sum of Thirty Thousand (P30,000.00) Pesos, Philippine Currency.

The accused Danny "BABY" Mondia, Herman Mondia, Sr., Gilberto Mondia, Rizaldy Mondia, Alderico Mondia and Edwin Mondia, upon reasonable doubt, are hereby acquitted.

2. In Criminal Case No. 315(-B), Danny "Baby" Mondia, Herman Mondia, Jr., Eduardo Esmaquilan, Gilberto Mondia and Edwin Mondia are found guilty beyond reasonable doubt as principals of the crime of murder and there being no modifying circumstance to consider, the Court sentences each one of them to suffer the penalty of Reclusion Perpetua and to jointly and severally indemnify the Heirs of Pablo Esteban the sum of Thirty Thousand (P30,000.00) Pesos, Philippine Currency, by reason of the death of said victim. There being no evidence presented to prove actual expenses incurred in relation to Pablo’s death, the Court cannot speculate.

The accused Eduardo Evangelista, Herman Mondia, Sr., Edgar Mondia, Rizaldy Mondia and Alderico Mondia, upon reasonable doubt, are hereby acquitted.

SO ORDERED."

To recapitulate, of the ten accused, Rizaldy, Alderico, and Herman, Sr., all surnamed Mondia, were acquitted in both cases, while Eduardo Evangelista did not appeal his conviction.[1] Edwin and Edgar Mondia died in separate incidents on August 7, 1990 and March 6, 1991,[2] respectively, while their case was on appeal.  The appeal of Herman Mondia, Jr. was dismissed in the Court’s resolution dated February 27, 1995, "for having escaped confinement during the pendency of his appeal."[3] Danny and Gilberto Mondia have both withdrawn their appeals[4] in order to seek a commutation of their sentences. Thus, the remaining appellant in these cases is Eduardo Esmaquilan. His participation in the crimes charged, if any, shall be shown presently.

Primitivo Fabian, the only alleged eyewitness presented by the prosecution, testified on June 5, 1985 before Judge Soledad and on November 19, 1987 before Judge Dinopol. The first time he was on the witness stand, he claimed that at around 6:00 o’clock in the evening of June 9, 1984, he and officer Dedal were riding a tricycle driven by Esteban on their way to the Poblacion of Banga. Dedal sat in front while Fabian sat at the rear of the "back-to-back" sidecar.[5] Upon reaching Bo. 1, a group of men blocked the road. One of them, later identified as Danny Mondia, hurled a stone at the motorcycle’s windshield, breaking it and hitting the head of Esteban, who fell to the ground.[6]

Dedal alighted and introduced himself as a policeman, but he was only ignored by the group which separately ganged up on him and Esteban.  He drew his gun and fired warning shots to no avail because his chest was stabbed twice by Eduardo Evangelista and once by Herman Mondia, Sr.[7] Someone else grabbed his gun as others held his hands. He was also stoned and hacked with a bolo on the head. Esteban’s head was likewise hit with a bolo.

Esteban and Dedal were then dragged to a muddy rice paddy where they were strangled and trod upon until their bodies sank in the mud. They were later divested of their personal belongings. Fabian apparently saw all of these from a distance of about ten meters while hiding in a ditch.[8]

While in a state of shock, Fabian rose from the ditch and managed to mingle with the group, who thought that he was "one of their companions."[9] When noticed by Herman, Sr., he denied being a companion of Dedal and Esteban. Herman, Sr. then ordered the group to run as the two victims were already dead[10]

Yet, he also testified that as the group moved away from the rice paddy, he stood up, ran and was chased by one of the men who ordered him to return.  He did not heed the man’s command and continued to run as fast as he could so that he would not be overtaken and caught.[11]

Amazingly, Fabian was able to specify the participation of each of the accused in the two killings, to wit:

1. Edgar Mondia held Dedal’s wrists;

2. Rizaldy Mondia stepped on Dedal’s body in the mud;

3. Herman Mondia, Jr. was among those who ganged upon and strangled Dedal;[12]

4. Gilberto Mondia also stepped on Dedal’s body and struck Esteban with a stone;

5. Danny Mondia was the one who stoned the tricycle’s windshield but he did not gang up on Dedal;[13]

6. Esteban was ganged upon by the following Mondias: Herman, Sr., Danny, Rizaldy, Gilbert and Edwin; Eduardo Evangelista; and the following Mondias who remain at large: Ulyses, Romulo, Ricardo, Sr. and Jr.;[14]

7. Dedal was ganged upon by Eduardo Evangelista, and the following Mondias: Herman, Sr. and Jr., Gilberto, Edgar, Rizaldy and Danny;[15]

8. Eduardo Evangelista stabbed Dedal and stepped on his body in the mud;[16]

9. Herman Mondia, Sr. also stabbed Dedal;

10. Edgar, Edwin and Gilberto Mondia strangled Dedal;[17] and

11. Eduardo Esmaquilan dragged and stepped on the body of Esteban.[18]
When he testified anew on November 19, 1987, Fabian reiterated his earlier narration, although with a couple of material discrepancies, namely, (a) he admitted seeing Eduardo Esmaquilan for the first time while the latter was detained at the Banga Poblacion jail;[19] and (b) he said that he and Dedal were riding side-by-side on the front seat of the sidecar when the incident occurred; no one sat at the back.[20]

As stated at the outset, Eduardo Esmaquilan, the lone appellant in these cases, was found guilty of killing both Dedal and Esteban. Upon a re-examination of the entire proceedings as well as the decision rendered by the trial court, however, this Court believes that a serious injustice has been done. Such error must now be corrected.

It cannot be stressed enough that to convict a man of any crime, his guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. This is in keeping with the constitutional presumption of innocence of any man accused of committing a crime. Thus, it is better to liberate a guilty man than to unjustly keep in prison one whose guilt has not been proved by the required quantum of evidence. The onus of proving the guilt of an accused person rests upon the State. The prosecution cannot simply rely on the weakness of the defense especially when, as in ,this case, the accused-appellant did not profer any evidence to prove his innocence.

But what is the prosecution’s evidence against Esmaquilan? It cannot be Fabian’s testimony. Fabian claimed Esmaquilan only dragged and stepped on Esteban’s body. Nowhere in his testimony did he ever say that Esmaquilan did anything else.  In fact, he pointed to Eduardo Evangelista as the one who stabbed Dedal twice, consistent with the physical evidence showing that Dedal suffered two fatal stab wounds on the chest.[21] Evangelista was convicted precisely because the trial court believed Fabian’s account of the circumstances leading to Dedal’ s death.

In complete disregard of logic and procedure, the court a quo relied instead on the evidence of the defense.  Evangelista’s testimony was, in one instance, both spurned and embraced by the court.  It was rejected as far as Evangelista’s denial was concerned, but adopted for the purpose of convicting his co-accused, including Esmaquilan.  Thus, the court said:

"Eduardo Esmaquilan presented no evidence to disprove the evidence of the prosecution against him.He had not denied either Evangelista’s testimony that he did acts which were proof of the offenses charged against him, or that of Fabian(‘s).[22] (Italics supplied).

According to Evangelista, the tricycle used by Esteban, Dedal and Fabian stopped because he and the Mondias were blocking the road.  Esmaquilan was the one who smashed the windshield of the tricycle and stabbed Dedal once.  He merely stood and watched his companions and co-accused kill the two victims; he was not able to see anymore what happened later, when Dedal was brought to the rice paddy, because the place was steep.[23]

It is clear from the foregoing that Eduardo Esmaquilan cannot be held accountable for the death of officer Dedal.  How can he be when the prosecution’s lone eyewitness failed to point to him as the culprit?  Neither can the court rely on Evangelista, whose testimony is, at best, self-serving and incredible, especially after he was identified by Fabian as one of the men who indeed stabbed Dedal.

Is Esmaquilan, on the other hand, responsible for Esteban’s demise?  After all, Fabian did say that he dragged and stepped on Esteban’s body.  In this regard, we are puzzled as to why .the trial court convicted Esmaquilan after making the following observation and conclusion:

"The dragging and stepping of (sic) the bodies of the victims may be seen by Fabian. But as he was already ten (10) meters away from the tricycle after he heard the gunreports (sic) and the bodies were two meters away from the roadside, then he could no longer precisely tell who dragged or stepped on them. He was seized with fear, the fact that he hid behind a ditch, so his sight was obstructed. Thus, his tale naming who dragged and stepped on the victims is considered doubtful."[24] (Italics supplied).

Such doubt entertained by the trial court was obvious in other parts of the decision. Thus, it declared:

"All these things happened in about five minutes time. It seems this single eyewitness would have not been in a position to be so precise on what happened after the windshield was stoned hitting Pablo (Esteban) and the stabbing of Rogelio (Dedal).  Were it not for the questions asked and permitted without basis this witness could have not stated one name of the accused after the other specifically what each did.  There appears a suggestive pressure for him (Fabian) to enumerate the names and specific acts."[25]

Esmaquilan could possibly have been convicted had there been a finding of conspiracy among the accused, but that, too, was dismissed by the court when it likened the incident to a "Street brawl."[26]

Nevertheless, even a cursory examination of Fabian’s testimony will reveal some marked inconsistencies. For instance, when he first testified he claimed that he rode at the rear seat of the back-to-back sidecar of the tricycle.[27] But when he was recalled to the stand, he said that he sat beside Dedal on the front seat of the sidecar.[28]

If Fabian were to be believed, his original version appears more plausible, for several reasons.  First, he ran to a ditch when the group started to gang up on the two victims.  He could not have done this if he had been beside Dedal all the time.  Second, he could also have been slain, being the companion of the two. Instead, he was able to convince the leader of the group that he was not with Dedal and Esteban.[29] Fabian vacillated further.  He ratified his sworn statement where he said that after the incident, he ran and was chased by one of the men who failed to catch up with him.[30]

Even Evangelista, upon whose testimony the trial court relied in convicting Esmaquilan, failed to connect the latter to the death of Esteban.  When the two victims were brought to the steep rice paddy, he could no longer see what was happening.[31]

It must be noted that these are not the only errors committed by the court a quo.  It also made unwarranted suppositions which swayed it in reaching a verdict, such as the following:

"x x x The Mondias were just in (a) festive mood as the victims and Fabian were.

xxx     xxx     xxx


"x x x Their (the Mondias) number being 25 or 30 would be enough to fill the road. More so, some of them were drunk, if not, tired walking kilometers from Bo. 5 to Bo. 1 and yet to proceed to Bo. 8 as their final destination.  There was a probability that the tricycle was running fast then, after coming from a higher portion thereof, and then slowed down when (sic) meeting the Mondias or the accused and company.  And probable also was the blowing of the horn by the tricycle driver which must have enraged the drunken (sic) among the Mondias or accused. Thus, when Danny ‘Baby’ Mondia, one of the accused, struck with (a) stone the windshield of the tricycle and hit the head of Pablo (Esteban) who as a result fell on (sic) the ground, the rest of the Mondias or accused were startled, so they crowded around the tricycle. Not with one purpose to kill but because they were alarmed.

xxx     xxx     xxx


"Perhaps the accused and companions would have been pacified were it not for Rogelio (Dedal) in civilian attire to go down introducing himself as a policeman and firing warning shots alarming the Mondias or accused."[32]

These presumptions aided the trial court in convicting seven of the accused. There is, however, a total absence of evidence, testimonial or otherwise, to support the same. In fact, Fabian’s testimony even contradicted some of these theories. For example, Fabian said that the road was "quite wide" and may accommodate two trucks,[33] contrary to the court’s premise that the road was narrow.  He also stated that the tricycle was "running slowly or moderately" at the time,[34] again contradicting the court’s supposition that the tricycle was probably running fast.

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the decision of the court a quo dated July 15, 1988 in Criminal Cases Nos.  314-B and 315-B is, as far as accused-appellant Eduardo Esmaquilan is concerned, REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Eduardo Esmaquilan is hereby ACQUITTED of the crimes charged.

SO ORDERED.

Regalado (Chairman), Puno, and Mendoza, JJ., concur.
Torres, Jr., J., on leave.


[1]
Rollo, pp. 155-156, 178-179, 293.

[2] Ibid., pp. 110-111.

[3] Id., p. 310.

[4] Id., 130-131, 161,169-171,181,310.

[5]  TSN, June 5, 1985, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., pp. 10,17.

[7] Id., p. 12.

[8] Id., pp. 17,51,53-54.

[9] Id., pp. 50-51.

[10]  Id., p.22,48,51,54.

[11] Id., pp. 53, 57.

[12]  Id., p. 41.

[13] Id., pp. 43,60.

[14] Id., pp. 46,63.

[15] Id., p.46.

[16]  Id., p. 60.

[17] Id., p.61.

[18] Id., p.64.

[19] TSN, November 19, 1987, p. 25.

[20] Ibid., p. 16.

[21]  Exhibit "DD", Records, p. 18.

[22] Decision, p. 77, Rollo.

[23] TSN, February 10, 1988, pp. 6, 15, 16.

[24] Decision, p. 78, Rollo.

[25] Ibid., p. 63.

[26] Id., p. 78.

[27] TSN, June 5, 1985, supra.

[28] Ibid., November 19, 1987, supra.

[29] TSN, June 5, 1985, supra.

[30] Ibid.

[31] TSN, February 10, 1988, supra.

[32] Decision, pp. 75-76, Rollo.

[33] TSN, June 5, 1985, p. 36.

[34] Ibid.

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