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612 Phil. 907

[ G.R. No. 149988, August 14, 2009 ]

RAMIE VALENZUELA, PETITIONER, VS. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

BRION, J.:

Petitioner Ramie Valenzuela (petitioner) seeks, in this petition for review on certiorari,[1] to reverse the Court of Appeals (CA) decision and resolution dated June 18, 2001 and September 10, 2001, respectively, in CA-G.R. CR No. 20533, that affirmed with modification the decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 38, Lingayen, Pangasinan, dated November 21, 1996, convicting the petitioner with the crime of attempted murder.

Petitioner and his brother, Hermie Valenzuela (Hermie), were charged with the crime of frustrated murder, allegedly committed as follows:

That on or about the 20th day of February 1996, in the evening, in Barangay Maniboc, municipality of Lingayen, province of Pangasinan, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, armed with a sharp pointed, bladed instrument, with intent to kill, taking advantage of their superior strength, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping one another, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously attack, assault and stab Gregorio P. Cruz, inflicting upon him the following:

- Stab wound 1 cm flank area left, 3 cm. depth
- Stap wound 1 cm flank area left, 3 cm. depth

the accused having thus performed all the acts of execution which would have produced the crime of murder as a consequence but nevertheless did not produce it by reason of causes independent of the will of the accused, that is, the timely medical assistance afforded to Gregorio P. Cruz which prevented his death, to his damage and prejudice.[2]

We summarized below the facts based on the records before us.

Petitioner and the victim, Gregorio P. Cruz (Gregorio), both lived in Barangay Maniboc, Lingayen, Pangasinan. In the early evening of February 20, 1996, Gregorio and his companion, Rogelio Bernal (Rogelio), went to the house of Barangay Captain Aurora dela Cruz to talk with Pepito, the latter's husband. While at the dela Cruz home, Gregorio, Rogelio and Pepito drank liquor (Fundador).

Based on the prosecution's account of the events, at around 10:00 o'clock of that same evening, Gregorio and Rogelio left the dela Cruz residence and headed for home after their "drinking spree" with Pepito dela Cruz. While they were walking along the barangay road and were near the Valenzuelas' residence/sari-sari store, the petitioner and his brother Hermie suddenly appeared from behind them. The petitioner held the shoulders of Gregorio while Hermie stabbed Gregorio twice at the left side of his back. Immediately thereafter, Hermie ran to the direction of the Valenzuelas' house some 10 meters away.

After the stabbing, Gregorio was brought to the clinic of one Dr. Casipit who administered emergency treatment on the stab wounds. He was transferred the following day to the Pangasinan Provincial Hospital (now Gov. Teofilo Sison Memorial Hospital) for further treatment. Per the medical findings of Dr. Antonio Rivera (Dr. Rivera), attending physician and Medical Officer III of the said hospital, Gregorio suffered the following wounds:

- Stab wound 1 cm flank area left, 3 cm depth;
- Stab wound 1 cm flank area left, 3 cm depth.

The wounds were found not to be fatal, as no vital organ was affected. Gregorio was discharged after one week of confinement.

On March 13, 1996, SPO II Jimmy B. Melchor of the Lingayen Police Station filed before the Municipal Trial Court of Lingayen, Pangasinan a criminal complaint for frustrated murder against the petitioner and Hermie. Finding probable cause, the court issued a warrant for their arrest and forwarded the records of the case to the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Pangasinan for the filing of the appropriate Information.[3] On May 16, 1996, an Information was filed before the RTC of Lingayen, Pangasinan, charging the two accused with frustrated murder.

Trial of the case proceeded solely with respect to the petitioner as his brother and co-accused, Hermie, was then, and still is, at large.

The prosecution presented Dr. Rivera of the Pangasinan Provincial Hospital who explained his medical findings on the injuries Gregorio sustained. He said that the 2 one-centimeter long wounds, both three-centimeter deep, were not fatal as no vital organ was affected.

The prosecution likewise presented Rogelio who declared that on the night of February 20, 1996, he accompanied Gregorio to the house of their Barangay Captain to talk to the latter's husband, Pepito dela Cruz; they drank as they talked with Pepito. As they headed for home while passing by the Valenzuelas' house/sari-sari store, the petitioner suddenly appeared from behind and held Gregorio, while Hermie stabbed the victim. Rogelio was able to positively identify the petitioner and Hermie as Gregorio's assailants, as the scene of the crime was well-lighted, illuminated by a streetlight from a nearby electric post.

After the stabbing, the two assailants ran towards their house, and Rogelio took Gregorio initially to the house of Barangay Captain dela Cruz, and then to the clinic of a certain Dr. Casipit for emergency treatment. Thereafter, he took Gregorio to the Pangasinan Provincial Hospital in Dagupan City because the wounds appeared to be "serious." Rogelio claimed that Hermie used an 8-inch long knife.

The victim, Gregorio, likewise testified for the prosecution. He declared that he was the Chief Barangay Tanod of their place and that he knew the two accused because they were residents of his barangay. The rest of his testimony was similar to Rogelio's.

The petitioner, after pleading not guilty to the charge, presented his defenses of denial and alibi. He claimed that on the night of February 20, 1996, he was at home together with his uncle, his sister, his sister's friend, and his parents. Earlier that night, he claimed that he read the Bible, ate dinner with his family and guests, then watched television. At around 10:00 o'clock that evening, they heard somebody shouting from the outside; his parents, however, prevented him from going out of the house for fear that he might get into trouble.

The petitioner claimed he was being implicated in the stabbing incident because he had a previous altercation with the victim, Gregorio, when the latter apprehended his other brother, Rommel Valenzuela. He further surmised that Gregorio could have mistaken him for his brother, Willy, with whom he shares physical similarities and who, he claimed, was one of the assailants in the stabbing incident. Witnesses Nestor Cerezo (Nestor) and Rhodora Manzano (Rhodora) supported the petitioner's defense of alibi.

Nestor testified that he is a businessman and a resident of Dagupan City. He claimed that the petitioner is his nephew, as the petitioner's maternal aunt, Josefina Campos, is his common-law partner. He stated that on February 20, 1996, he went to the Valenzuelas' house to collect payment on a debt owed him by the parents of the accused. Since he arrived after dark, the parents of the accused prevailed on him to dine and spend the night with them.

At about 10:00 o'clock that night, while he was talking with the petitioner and the latter's father (Rosauro), they heard a commotion outside the house. He and Rosauro went out and saw several persons talking. They learned from their inquiry that Hermie had stabbed Gregorio. Nestor claimed that all this time, the petitioner was inside the house because his father had prevented him from going out.

Rhodora also testified for the defense. She declared under oath that she is a friend of Annie Valenzuela, the younger sister of the accused. On February 20, 1996, Annie invited her to sleep in their house. They had dinner at about 6:30 pm, ahead of the other members of the household who were then in conversation with another visitor, whom she later learned to be Nestor. At about 9:45 pm, while she and Annie were manning the Valenzuelas' store, Willy Valenzuela arrived and joined the group singing and playing the guitar in front of the store; Hermie was among those in the group.

At around 10:00 pm, she noticed Gregorio and Rogelio walking past the store; both appeared drunk as they were walking aimlessly. As they walked, the two momentarily stopped and stared at the group in front of the Valenzuelas' store before proceeding to another sari-sari store nearby. She then heard Gregorio shout "vulva of your mother, Valenzuela" three times; Rogelio tried to pacify him. Thereafter, she saw Hermie approach Gregorio to confront him. In a blur, she witnessed Gregorio hit Hermie on the left side of the face. Hermie retreated to his house but came back and stabbed Gregorio at the left side of his back. She noticed that Willy then held the arms of Gregorio in an attempt to mollify the latter; Gregorio responded by hitting Willy on the head. At this point, she heard Willy advise Gregorio to go away to avoid further trouble; instead of heeding the advice, Gregorio threw a fist blow at Hermie, who dodged the blow and stabbed Gregorio a second time.

Right after the stabbing, she saw Hermie run to the direction of the Valenzuelas' house, while Gregorio and Rogelio proceeded to the house of Barangay Captain Dela Cruz. She categorically declared that the petitioner had no participation in the incident, as only the petitioner's brothers, Willy and Hermie, were at the scene of the crime.

After trial on the merits, the trial court rendered its decision[4] of November 21, 1996, convicting the petitioner of frustrated murder. The trial court found that the petitioner's defense of alibi had insufficient evidentiary support and must yield to the positive identification by the prosecution witness, Rogelio. The dispositive portion of the lower court's decision reads:

WHEREFORE, in the light of all the foregoing considerations, the court finds and holds the accused, Ramie Valenzuela, guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Frustrated Murder as charged in the information filed against him, pursuant to law, taking into account the provision[s] of Article 250 of the Revised Penal Code and the Indeterminate Sentence Law in his favor, hereby sentences said accused to suffer the indeterminate penalty of four (4) years and two (2) months of prision correccional as minimum to eight (8) years and one (1) day of prision mayor as maximum and to pay the costs of the suit. x x x

In appreciating the qualifying circumstance of abuse of superior strength, the trial court explained:

The information filed against the accused alleges that the two accused took advantage of their superior strength in attacking and assaulting the offended party with sharp pointed, bladed instrument twice on the left side of the back. Abuse of superior strength is determined by the excess of the aggressors natural strength over that of the victim's, considering the momentary positions of both parties and the employment of means weakening the defense of the victim, although not annulling it. Thus, there is abuse of superior strength in the case where four persons attacked an unarmed victim (People v. Garcia, 94 SCRA 14) or where six persons inflicted injuries on the victim (People v. Gonzales).

The petitioner appealed to the CA. In its decision of June 18, 2001, the appellate court affirmed with modification the trial court's decision; it held that the crime committed was attempted murder since the wounds inflicted were not fatal. The fallo of the CA decision reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the appealed decision is hereby AFFIRMED WITH MODIFICATION. In lieu thereof, another one is entered CONVICTING the accused of the crime of ATTEMPTED MURDER and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of imprisonment of four (4) years and two (2) months of prision correccional, as minimum, to eight (8) years and one (1) day of prision mayor, as maximum x x x. (Emphasis supplied.)

The appellate court denied the petitioner's motion for reconsideration that followed, thus paving the way for the present petition for review on certiorari on the sole issue of --

WHETHER THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN CONVICTING THE PETITIONER FOR ATTEMPTED MURDER.

Thus framed, the sole issue before us is whether the crime the petitioner committed should properly be attempted murder based on the qualifying circumstance of abuse of superior strength.

We find the petition meritorious.

The RTC and the CA commonly found an intent to kill. They differ in the appreciation of the stage of execution of the crime as the RTC considered the crime frustrated, while the CA decided that it was attempted because the victim's wounds were not fatal. In both rulings, the RTC and the CA characterized the act to be qualified by abuse of superior strength; thus, it was either attempted or frustrated murder.

The petitioner, in his Reply,[5] finds the appreciation of abuse of superior strength to be erroneous, as the Information charging him with the crime of frustrated murder did not allege this circumstance with particularity as a qualifying circumstance. The petitioner therefore posits that this circumstance, even if proven, must be considered a generic aggravating circumstance.

We see no merit in the petitioner's contention in light of our ruling in People v. Aquino[6] which we intended to guide the bench and the bar on how to allege or specify qualifying or aggravating circumstances in the Information. We held in this case that the words "aggravating/qualifying," "qualifying," "qualified by," "aggravating," or "aggravated by" need not be expressly stated, so long as the particular attendant circumstances are specified in the Information.

This conclusion, notwithstanding, we hold that the conviction of the accused of the crime of either attempted or frustrated murder is substantively flawed, as both the RTC and the CA erroneously appreciated the presence of abuse of superior strength as a qualifying circumstance. Our own examination of the evidence tells us that no conclusive proof exists showing the presence of this circumstance in the commission of the felony.

Both the trial and appellate courts concluded that abuse of superior strength was present because the petitioner "held the arms of the victim to facilitate the stabbing by his brother (Hermie) and to limit the degree of resistance that the victim may put up."[7] The trial court, in particular, held that "there is no doubt that accused took advantage of their combined strength when one held the victim by the shoulder and armpit and the other inflicted two stab wounds on the left side of his back." We find this reasoning erroneous.

Abuse of superior strength is present whenever there is a notorious inequality of forces between the victim and the aggressor/s that is plainly and obviously advantageous to the aggressor/s and purposely selected or taken advantage of to facilitate the commission of the crime.[8] Evidence must show that the assailants consciously sought the advantage,[9] or that they had the deliberate intent to use this advantage.[10] To take advantage of superior strength means to purposely use force excessively out of proportion to the means of defense available to the person attacked.[11] The appreciation of this aggravating circumstance depends on the age, size and strength of the parties.[12]

In the present case, the prosecution failed to present evidence to show a relative disparity in age, size, strength, or force, except for the showing that two assailants, one of them armed with a knife, attacked the victim. The presence of two assailants, one of them armed with a knife, is not per se indicative of abuse of superior strength.[13] Mere superiority in numbers does not indicate the presence of this circumstance.[14] Nor can the circumstance be inferred solely from the victim's possibly weaker physical constitution. In fact, what the evidence shows in this case is a victim who is taller than the assailants[15] and who was even able to deliver retaliatory fist blows[16] against the knife-wielder.

The events leading to the stabbing further belie any finding of deliberate intent on the part of the assailants to abuse their superior strength over that of the victim.[17] The testimonies of the witnesses, on the whole, show that the encounter between the victim and his assailants was unplanned and unpremeditated. The victim and his companions were simply passing by after a night of conversation with drinks, while the assailants were simply singing and engaged in merrymaking, and no conscious effort on the part of the accused appeared to have been made to use or take advantage of any superior strength that they then enjoyed.[18] Specifically, we do not find it certain nor clearly established that the accused, taking advantage of their number, purposely resorted to holding the victim by the arms so that the knife-wielder would be free to stab him at the back. In terms of numbers, the victim was with a companion while only two of the Valenzuela brothers participated in the attack; thus a parity in numbers existed. Nor is it certain that the victim was simply overwhelmed by the act of the accused of holding the victim by the shoulders while his brother stabbed him at the back. The evidence on this point is simply too sketchy and too confused for a definitive conclusion. What, to us, is certain is the intent to kill, as shown by the two stab wounds and their location; they were back wounds that could have been fatal or near fatal had greater force been used or the dynamics of the parties' movements at the time of the stabbing been different. Even if the accused did not directly wield the knife, he is as guilty as the knife-wielder for the unity of purpose he has shown in participating in the attack against the victim, Gregorio.

In light of all these, we are compelled to rule out the attendance of abuse of superior strength as a qualifying circumstance. Considering further that the victim sustained wounds that were not fatal and absent a showing that such wounds would have certainly caused his death were it not for timely medical assistance, we declare the petitioner's guilt to be limited to the crime of attempted homicide.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision of the Court of Appeals dated June 18, 2001 in CA-G.R. CR No. 20533 is AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION. Petitioner Ramie Valenzuela is found guilty of attempted homicide under Article 249 in relation with Article 6 of the Revised Penal Code. In the absence of any modifying circumstance attendant to the commission of the crime, we hereby sentence him to suffer an indeterminate penalty[19] of four (4) months of arresto mayor in its medium period, as minimum, to three (3) years of prision correccional in its medium period, as maximum.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio-Morales, (Acting Chairperson), Carpio, Chico-Nazario, and Leonardo-De Castro, JJ., concur.



* Designated Acting Chairperson of the Second Division effective August 1, 2009 per Special Order No. 670 dated July 28, 2009.

** Designated additional Member of the Second Division effective August 1, 2009 per Special Order No. 671 dated July 28, 2009.

*** Designated additional Member of the Second Division effective June 3, 2009 per Special Order No. 658 dated June 3, 2009.

**** Designated additional Member of the Second Division effective May 11, 2009 per Special Order No. 635 dated May 7, 2009.

[1] Under Rule 45 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

[2] Information dated May 15, 1996, as quoted in the Decision dated November 21, 1996 of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 38, Lingayen, Pangasinan; rollo, p. 30.

[3] Id.

[4] Supra note 2.

[5] Rollo, pp. 137-141.

[6] G.R. Nos. 144340-42, August 6, 2002, 386 SCRA 391.

[7] See CA Decision dated June 18, 2001; rollo, p. 92.

[8] People v. Daquipil, G.R. Nos. 86305-06, January 20, 1995, 240 SCRA 314, 332-333.

[9] People v. Casingal, G.R. No. 87163, March 29, 1995, 243 SCRA 37.

[10] People v. Escoto, G.R. No. 91756, May 11, 1995, 244 SCRA 87.

[11] People v. Ventura, G.R. Nos. 148145-46, July 5, 2004, 433 SCRA 389, citing People v. Cabiling, 74 SCRA 285, 304 (1976); People v. Sarabia, 96 SCRA 714, 719-720 (1980); People v. Cabato, 160 SCRA 98, 110 (1988); People v. Carpio, 191 SCRA 108, 119 (1990); People v. Moka, 196 SCRA 378, 387 (1991); People v. De Leon, 320 SCRA 495, 505 (1999).

[12] People v. Cabato; People v. Carpio; People v. Moka, supra.

[13] People v. Asis, G.R. No. 118936, February 9, 1998, 286 SCRA 64.

[14] People v. Escoto, supra note 10.

[15] TSN, September 26, 1996, pp. 9-10.

[16] Ibid.

[17] People v. CaƱete, G.R. No. 120495, March 12, 1998, 287 SCRA 490, 503

[18] Ibid.

[19] Pursuant to the guidelines laid down in Act No. 4103, as amended, or the Indeterminate Sentence Law.

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