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395 Phil. 78

EN BANC

[ G.R. No. 132547, September 20, 2000 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. SPO1 ERNESTO ULEP, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

BELLOSILLO, J.:

In the aftermath of an incident where a certain Buenaventura Wapili[1] went berserk at Mundog Subdivision, Poblacion Kidapawan, Cotabato, in the early morning of 22 December 1995, Police Officer Ernesto Ulep was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the trial court for killing Wapili. Ulep was also ordered to indemnify the heirs of the victim in the amount of P50,000.00 and to pay the costs.[2]

The evidence shows that at around two o' clock in the morning of 22 December 1995 Buenaventura Wapili was having a high fever and was heard talking insensibly to himself in his room. His brother-in-law, Dario Leydan, convinced him to come out of his room and talk to him, but Wapili told Leydan that he could not really understand himself. After a while, Wapili went back to his room and turned off the lights. Moments later, the lights went on again and Leydan heard a disturbance inside the room, as if Wapili was smashing the furniture.[3] Unable to pacify Wapili, Leydan called Pastor Bonid of the Alliance Church of Kidapawan to help him "pray over" Wapili, but they could not enter the latter's room as he became wild and violent. Suddenly, Wapili bolted out of his room naked and chased Leydan. Thereafter, Leydan with the aid of two (2) of his neighbors attempted to tie Wapili with a rope but was unsuccessful as Wapili was much bigger in built and stronger than anyone of them.[4] Wapili, who appeared to have completely gone crazy, kept on running without any particular direction.

Thus, Leydan went to the house of policewoman Norma Plando, a neighbor, and asked for assistance. As Wapili passed by the house of Plando, he banged Plando's vehicle parked outside. Using a hand-held radio, Plando then contacted SPO1 Ernesto Ulep, SPO1 Edilberto Espadera and SPO2 Crispin Pillo, all members of the PNP assigned to secure the premises of the nearby Roman Catholic Church of Kidapawan.[5]

At around four o'clock in the morning of the same day, SPO1 Ulep together with SPO1 Espadera and SPO2 Pillo arrived at the scene on board an Anfra police service jeep. The three (3) police officers, all armed with M-16 rifles, alighted from the jeep when they saw the naked Wapili approaching them. The kind of weapon Wapili was armed with is disputed. The police claimed that he was armed with a bolo and a rattan stool, while Wapili's relatives and neighbors said he had no bolo, but only a rattan stool.

SPO1 Ulep fired a warning shot in the air and told Wapili to put down his weapons or they would shoot him. But Wapili retorted "pusila!" ("fire!") and continued advancing towards the police officers. When Wapili was only about two (2) to three (3) meters away from them, SPO1 Ulep shot the victim with his M-16 rifle, hitting him in various parts of his body. As the victim slumped to the ground, SPO1 Ulep came closer and pumped another bullet into his head and literally blew his brains out.[6]

The post mortem examination of the body conducted by Dr. Roberto A. Omandac, Municipal Health Officer of Kidapawan, showed that Wapili sustained five (5) gunshot wounds: one (1) on the right portion of the head, one (1) on the right cheek, one (1) on the abdomen and two (2) on the right thigh: SHEENT - gunshot wound on the right parietal area with fractures of the right temporoparietal bones with evisceration of brain tissues, right zygomatic bone and right mandible, lateral aspect; CHEST AND BACK - with powder burns on the right posterior chest; ABDOMEN - gunshot wound on the right upper quadrant measuring 0.5 cm. in diameter (point of entry) with multiple powder burns around the wound and on the right lumbar area (point of exit). Gunshot wound on the suprapubic area (point of entry); EXTREMETIES - with gunshot wounds on the right thigh, upper third, anterior aspect measuring 0.5 cm. in diameter with powder burns (point of entry) and right buttocks measuring 0.5 cm. in diameter (point of exit); gunshot wound on the right thigh, upper third, posterolateral aspect; CAUSE OF DEATH - multiple gunshot wounds.[7]

Dr. Omandac concluded that the shots were fired at close range, perhaps within twenty-four (24) inches, judging from the powder burns found around some of the wounds in the body of the victim,[8] and that the wound in the head, which caused the victim's instantaneous death, was inflicted while "the victim was in a lying position."[9]

The Office of the Ombudsman for the Military filed an Information for murder against SPO1 Ulep. The accused pleaded not guilty to the charge on arraignment, and insisted during the trial that he acted in self-defense. However, on 28 October 1997, the trial court rendered judgment convicting the accused of murder and sentencing him to death -
The means employed by the accused to prevent or repel the alleged aggression is not reasonable because the victim, Buenaventura Wapili, was already on the ground, therefore, there was no necessity for the accused to pump another shot on the back portion of the victim's head. Clearly the gravity of the wounds sustained by the victim belies the pretension of the accused that he acted in self-defense. It indicates his determined effort to kill the victim. It is established that accused (sic) was already in the ground that would no longer imperil the accused's life. The most logical option open to the accused was to inflict on the victim such injury that would prevent the victim from further harming him. The court is not persuaded by the accused's version because if it is true that the victim attacked him and his life was endangered - yet his two (2) companions SPO1 Espadera and SPO2 Pillo did not do anything to help him but just witness the incident - which is unbelievable and unnatural behavior of police officers x x x x

WHEREFORE, prescinding from the foregoing, judgment is hereby rendered finding the accused Ernesto Ulep guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Murder, the accused is hereby sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of Death, to indemnify the heirs of Buenaventura Wapili the amount of P50,000.00 without subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency and to pay the costs.
Death penalty having been imposed by the trial court, the case is now before us on automatic review. Accused-appellant prays for his acquittal mainly on the basis of his claim that the killing of the victim was in the course of the performance of his official duty as a police officer, and in self-defense.

Preliminarily, having admitted the killing of Wapili, accused-appellant assumed the burden of proving legal justification therefor. He must establish clearly and convincingly how he acted in fulfillment of his official duty and/or in complete self-defense, as claimed by him; otherwise, he must suffer all the consequences of his malefaction. He has to rely on the quantitative and qualitative strength of his own evidence, not on the weakness of the prosecution; for even if it were weak it could not be disbelieved after he had admitted the killing.[10]

Before the justifying circumstance of fulfillment of a duty under Art. 11, par. 5, of The Revised Penal Code may be successfully invoked, the accused must prove the presence of two (2) requisites, namely, that he acted in the performance of a duty or in the lawful exercise of a right or an office, and that the injury caused or the offense committed be the necessary consequence of the due performance of duty or the lawful exercise of such right or office. The second requisite is lacking in the instant case.

Accused-appellant and the other police officers involved originally set out to perform a legal duty: to render police assistance, and restore peace and order at Mundog Subdivision where the victim was then running amuck. There were two (2) stages of the incident at Mundog Subdivision. During the first stage, the victim threatened the safety of the police officers by menacingly advancing towards them, notwithstanding accused-appellant's previous warning shot and verbal admonition to the victim to lay down his weapon or he would be shot. As a police officer, it is to be expected that accused-appellant would stand his ground. Up to that point, his decision to respond with a barrage of gunfire to halt the victim's further advance was justified under the circumstances. After all, a police officer is not required to afford the victim the opportunity to fight back. Neither is he expected - when hard pressed and in the heat of such an encounter at close quarters - to pause for a long moment and reflect coolly at his peril, or to wait after each blow to determine the effects thereof.

However, while accused-appellant is to be commended for promptly responding to the call of duty when he stopped the victim from his potentially violent conduct and aggressive behavior, he cannot be exonerated from overdoing his duty during the second stage of the incident - when he fatally shot the victim in the head, perhaps in his desire to take no chances, even after the latter slumped to the ground due to multiple gunshot wounds sustained while charging at the police officers. Sound discretion and restraint dictated that accused-appellant, a veteran policeman,[11] should have ceased firing at the victim the moment he saw the latter fall to the ground. The victim at that point no longer posed a threat and was already incapable of mounting an aggression against the police officers. Shooting him in the head was obviously unnecessary. As succinctly observed by the trial court -
Once he saw the victim he fired a warning shot then shot the victim hitting him on the different parts of the body causing him to fall to the ground and in that position the accused shot the victim again hitting the back portion of the victim's head causing the brain to scatter on the ground x x x x the victim, Buenaventura Wapili, was already on the ground. Therefore, there was no necessity for the accused to pump another shot on the back portion of the victim's head.
It cannot therefore be said that the fatal wound in the head of the victim was a necessary consequence of accused-appellant's due performance of a duty or the lawful exercise of a right or office.

Likewise, the evidence at hand does not favor his claim of self-defense. The elements in order for self-defense to be appreciated are: (a) unlawful aggression on the part of the person injured or killed by the accused; (b) reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel it; and, (c) lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person defending himself.[12]

The presence of unlawful aggression is a condition sine qua non. There can be no self-defense, complete or incomplete, unless the victim has committed an unlawful aggression against the person defending himself.[13] In the present case, the records show that the victim was lying in a prone position on the ground - bleeding from the bullet wounds he sustained, and possibly unconscious - when accused-appellant shot him in the head. The aggression that was initially begun by the victim already ceased when accused-appellant attacked him. From that moment, there was no longer any danger to his life.

This Court disagrees with the conclusion of the court a quo that the killing of Wapili by accused-appellant was attended by treachery, thus qualifying the offense to murder. We discern nothing from the evidence that the assault was so sudden and unexpected and that accused-appellant deliberately adopted a mode of attack intended to insure the killing of Wapili, without the victim having the opportunity to defend himself.

On the contrary, the victim could not have been taken by surprise as he was given more than sufficient warning by accused-appellant before he was shot, i.e., accused-appellant fired a warning shot in the air, and specifically ordered him to lower his weapons or he would be shot. The killing of Wapili was not sought on purpose. Accused-appellant went to the scene in pursuance of his official duty as a police officer after having been summoned for assistance. The situation that the victim, at the time accused-appellant shot him in the head, was prostrate on the ground is of no moment when considering the presence of treachery. The decision to kill was made in an instant and the victim's helpless position was merely incidental to his having been previously shot by accused-appellant in the performance of his official duty.

There is treachery when the offender commits any of the crimes against persons, employing means, methods, or forms in the execution thereof which tend directly and specially to insure its execution, without risk to himself arising from the defense which the offended party might make.[14] Considering the rule that treachery cannot be inferred but must be proved as fully and convincingly as the crime itself, any doubt as to its existence must be resolved in favor of accused-appellant. Accordingly, for failure of the prosecution to prove treachery to qualify the killing to murder, accused-appellant may only be convicted of homicide.

Indeed, to hold him criminally liable for murder and sentence him to death under the circumstances would certainly have the effect of demoralizing other police officers who may be called upon to discharge official functions under similar or identical conditions. We would then have a dispirited police force who may be half-hearted, if not totally unwilling, to perform their assigned duties for fear that they would suffer the same fate as that of accused-appellant.

This brings us to the imposition of the proper penalty.

We find in favor of accused-appellant the incomplete justifying circumstance of fulfillment of a duty or lawful exercise of a right. Under Art. 69 of The Revised Penal Code, "a penalty lower by one or two degrees than that prescribed by law shall be imposed if the deed is not wholly excusable by reason of the lack of some of the conditions required to justify the same or to exempt from criminal liability in the several cases mentioned in Arts. 11 and 12, provided that the majority of such conditions be present. The courts shall impose the penalty in the period which may be deemed proper, in view of the number and nature of the conditions of exemption present or lacking."

Incomplete justification is a special or privileged mitigating circumstance, which, not only cannot be offset by aggravating circumstances but also reduces the penalty by one or two degrees than that prescribed by law.[15] Undoubtedly, the instant case would have fallen under Art. 11, par. 5 of The Revised Penal Code had the two (2) conditions therefor concurred which, to reiterate: first, that the accused acted in the performance of a duty or the lawful exercise of a right or office; and second, that the injury or offense committed be the necessary consequence of the due performance of such duty or the lawful exercise of such right or office. But here, only the first condition was fulfilled. Hence, Art. 69 is applicable, although its "that the majority of such conditions be present," is immaterial since there are only two (2) conditions that may be taken into account under Art. 11, par. 5. Article 69 is obviously in favor of the accused as it provides for a penalty lower than that prescribed by law when the crime committed is not wholly justifiable. The intention of the legislature, obviously, is to mitigate the penalty by reason of the diminution of either freedom of action, intelligence, or intent, or of the lesser perversity of the offender.[16]

We likewise credit in favor of accused-appellant the mitigating circumstance of voluntary surrender. The police blotter of Kidapawan Municipal Police Station shows that immediately after killing Wapili, accused-appellant reported to the police headquarters and voluntarily surrendered himself.[17]

Article 249 of The Revised Penal Code prescribes for the crime of homicide the penalty of reclusion temporal, the range of which is twelve (12) years and one (1) day to twenty (20) years. There being an incomplete justifying circumstance of fulfillment of a duty, the penalty should be one (1) degree lower, i.e., from reclusion temporal to prision mayor, pursuant to Art. 69, in relation to Art. 61, par. 2, and Art. 71, of the Code, to be imposed in its minimum period since accused-appellant voluntarily surrendered to the authorities and there was no aggravating circumstance to offset this mitigating circumstance. Applying the Indeterminate Sentence Law, the maximum of the penalty shall be taken from the minimum period of prision mayor, the range of which is six (6) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years, while the minimum shall be taken from the penalty next lower in degree which is prision correccional, in any of its periods, the range of which is six (6) months and one (1) day to six (6) years.

The right to kill an offender is not absolute, and may be used only as a last resort, and under circumstances indicating that the offender cannot otherwise be taken without bloodshed. The law does not clothe police officers with authority to arbitrarily judge the necessity to kill.[18] It may be true that police officers sometimes find themselves in a dilemma when pressured by a situation where an immediate and decisive, but legal, action is needed. However, it must be stressed that the judgment and discretion of police officers in the performance of their duties must be exercised neither capriciously nor oppressively, but within reasonable limits. In the absence of a clear and legal provision to the contrary, they must act in conformity with the dictates of a sound discretion, and within the spirit and purpose of the law.[19] We cannot countenance trigger-happy law enforcement officers who indiscriminately employ force and violence upon the persons they are apprehending. They must always bear in mind that although they are dealing with criminal elements against whom society must be protected, these criminals are also human beings with human rights.

WHEREFORE, the appealed Judgment is MODIFIED. Accused-appellant SPO1 ERNESTO ULEP is found guilty of HOMICIDE, instead of Murder, and is sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of four (4) years, two (2) months and ten (10) days of prision correccional medium as minimum, to six (6) years, four (4) months and twenty (20) days of prision mayor minimum as maximum. He is further ordered to indemnify the heirs of Buenaventura Wapili in the amount of P50,000.00, and to pay the costs.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Melo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Purisima, Pardo, Buena, Gonzaga-Reyes, and De Leon, Jr., JJ., concur.
Ynares-Santiago, J., on leave.



[1] Sometimes spelled "Wapille."

[2] Decision penned by Judge Rodolfo M. Serrano, RTC-Br. 17, Kidapawan, Cotabato, prom. 28 October 1997.

[3] TSN, 14 January 1997, pp. 7-9

[4] Id., p. 20.

[5] TSN, 9 September 1997, pp. 7-8.

[6] TSN, 12 February 1997, p. 11.

[7] Records, pp. 59-60.

[8] TSN, 6 June 1997, p. 18.

[9] Id., p. 37.

[10] People v. Cario, G.R. No. 123325, 31 March 1998, 288 SCRA 404.

[11] Appellant has been in the service for 18 years and has several commendations.

[12] People v. Sazon, G.R. No. 89684, 18 September 1990, 189 SCRA 700.

[13] Ibid.

[14] People v. Villegas, G.R. No. 118653, September 23, 1996, 262 SCRA 314.

[15] See Lacanilao v. Court of Appeals, No. L-34940, June 27, 1988, 162 SCRA 563.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Records, p. 413; Exh. "E."

[18] 64 C.J.S. ยง 49.

[19] See People v. Pinto, G.R. No. 39519, 21 November 1991, 204 SCRA 9.

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