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618 Phil. 465

THIRD DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 184792, October 12, 2009 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. ALFREDO DELA CRUZ Y MIRANDA, ALIAS "DIDONG," ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

VELASCO JR., J.:

On appeal is the Decision dated April 15, 2008 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01024, which affirmed the April 15, 2005 Decision in Criminal Case No. 1206-M-2002 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 12 in Malolos City, Bulacan. The RTC convicted accused-appellant Alfredo Dela Cruz, alias "Didong," of the crime of murder and sentenced him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua.

In an Information dated April 10, 2002, appellant and three others, namely: Narciso Samonte, alias "Boyet," Alfredo Gongon, alias "Fred," and Florante Flores, alias "Nante," were charged with murder allegedly committed as follows:

That on or about the 20th day of November, 2001, in the municipality of San Rafael, province of Bulacan, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, armed with a handgun and fanknives, [sic] conspiring, confederating together and mutually helping one another, with intent to kill one Ahlladin Trinidad y Payumo, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously, with evident premeditation and treachery, attack, assault, shoot and stab the said Ahlladin Trinidad y Payumo, hitting the latter on the different parts of his body which directly caused the death of the said Ahlladin Trinidad y Payumo.[1]

Of the four indicted, only appellant Dela Cruz (Didong) and Samonte (Boyet) were taken into custody. The other two accused, Gongon (Tata Fred) and Flores (Nante), remained at large.

Upon their arraignment, both appellant and Samonte pleaded not guilty to the charge.

The Case for the Prosecution

During trial, the prosecution presented in evidence the testimony of Anthony Villacorta and his mother, Zenaida Soriano, to establish the ensuing course of events:

On November 20, 2001, at around 5 o'clock in the afternoon, Anthony, then 13 years old, was playing in front of the house of Gongon, in Brgy. Pantubig, San Rafael, Bulacan. Anthony addresses Gongon, one of the accused at large, as "Tata Fred." Tata Fred was then having a drinking spree with Boyet, Nante, Rico, Ariel, Arnel, Ahlladin Trinidad (Ahlladin), and appellant, also known as "Didong." At approximately 6 o'clock in the evening of that day, Anthony went home to have dinner and then met up with friends to sing Christmas carols from house to house. The group broke up at around 8:30 that evening, after which Anthony and two of his friends, Edwin and Ronnel, stayed at a store to wait for a certain JR.[2]

At about 9 o'clock, Anthony saw Nante and Boyet, the latter holding an ice pick, pass by going to the direction of a forested area. Shortly thereafter, Ahlladin also passed by, walking unsteadily, followed by Tata Fred who had a gun tucked in his waist. Tata Fred then put an arm around Ahlladin's shoulder and the two then proceeded to the forested area. Moments later, Anthony and his friends heard three gunshots. They stayed at the store for a while before proceeding home. They did not, before leaving, see anyone come out of the forested area.

The next morning, Ahlladin's lifeless body was discovered. Among those who joined the curious onlookers was Anthony who, upon seeing Ahlladin's corpse, remarked, "Iyan pala ang pinaputukan ni Tata Fred kagabi." Tata Fred, who was among those in the crowd and who heard Anthony's utterances, pulled the latter aside, told him to keep quiet, and slapped him. The next day, Tata Fred threatened Anthony again while the latter was with his mother, Zenaida. He told Anthony not to tell anyone of his drinking spree with Ahlladin. Zenaida then instructed her son to go home.[3]

Zenaida confirmed that there was indeed a drinking session at Tata Fred's house in the afternoon of November 20, 2001. Present at the time were Fred, Boyet, Rico, Nante, Ariel, Arnel, Ahlladin, and Didong. According to Zenaida, she was fetching water nearby when she overheard the group arguing about Ahlladin being a police informant and heard Boyet declared, "All the salot in their occupation should be liquidated." Tata Fred commented that they should first wait for Ahlladin's friend, Wowie, so that they could dispose of "two birds with one shot."[4] The exchange enraged Ahlladin who there and then remarked that he would have the police arrest them. He then left and went inside the house of Tata Fred's brother, Hernan. After 20 minutes, Zenaida noticed Nante calling Ahlladin's name and telling him that they were all only kidding. Ahlladin rejoined the drinking group shortly thereafter.[5]

Boyet and Nante then headed to Zenaida's house that same night. It was around 8 o'clock. An inebriated-looking Boyet said out loud, "Ang mga salot sa hanapbuhay namin ay kailangang patayin," then left with Nante. Peeping through her window, Zenaida saw the two walking towards a forested area. Sometime later, Zenaida sat out on her yard with her niece, Luz. She saw Ahlladin walking in a wobbly manner. He was accompanied by Tata Fred, who had a gun tucked in his waist. Both men likewise walked towards the forested area. At around 9 o'clock, Zenaida heard three explosions which she surmised to be the sounds coming from firecrackers.[6]

The following morning, Zenaida observed people running in the direction of the forest area. She learned along with her son Anthony that Ahlladin's body had been discovered there. Anthony then told Zenaida that it was his Tata Fred who killed Ahlladin.[7]

On December 1, 2001, Zenaida and Anthony each issued statements on Ahlladin's death to the local police. Anthony's statement named his Tata Fred, Boyet, and Nante as the men he saw walking towards the forested area the night before the discovery of Ahlladin's body.[8] On January 7, 2002, Anthony executed a Karagdagang Salaysay. He explained that after giving his first Salaysay, he often dreamt of Ahlladin during which he would shout "Kuya Ahlladin, takbo, babanatan ka nila." The recurring dreams prompted him to execute an additional affidavit, this time also implicating appellant.[9]

In his Karagdagang Salaysay, Anthony recounted that at about 9:00 in the evening of November 20, 2001, while at a store with his two friends, he spotted appellant taking the short-cut route to the forested area which Boyet and Nante had earlier used. Didong was carrying what appeared to be a wooden paddle. He turned to Anthony and his two friends and told them not to follow him. Intrigued, the boys ignored appellant's warning and hid under a hut in the forested area. They saw Ahlladin being killed by Boyet, Nante, Tata Fred, and appellant. Tata Fred was then heard saying "Siguraduhin na patay na," to which Boyet answered, "Siguradong patay na."[10]

The following day, November 21, 2001, Anthony met appellant who again warned the former not to reveal to anybody what he saw the night before. The terrified Anthony answered "yes" and proceeded home.

Per Medico-Legal Report No. M-244-01,[11] marked and presented in evidence as Exhibit "F," gunshot wounds on his head and trunk, as well as a stab wound on his trunk, caused Ahlladin's death.

The Case for the Defense


Didong proffered the defenses of alibi and denial. He testified to being at Tata Fred's house from five in the afternoon of November 20, 2001 until seven in the evening.[12] He then headed home and stayed there the whole night. He only found out about Ahlladin's death when his neighbors informed him about it the next day.[13]

When asked of any motive that might have impelled the prosecution witnesses to implicate him in Ahlladin's death, appellant answered that, in 1998, Zenaida was arrested and subsequently convicted of drug charges. He acknowledged being the police informant who reported on her drug activities.[14]

The Ruling of the Trial and Appellate Courts

After trial, the RTC, finding the prosecution's evidence sufficient to sustain a finding of guilt, rendered judgment convicting appellant and his co-accused Samonte of murder. The dispositive portion of the RTC Decision reads:

WHEREFORE, finding herein accused Alfredo dela Cruz y Miranda @ "Didong" and Narciso Samonte y Dionisio @ "Boyet" each guilty as principal beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of murder as charged in the information, there being no other circumstances, aggravating or mitigating, found attendant in its commission, except the qualifying circumstance of treachery as alleged, due to the drunkenness of the victim which rendered him helpless to put up any defense or to retaliate, said accused are hereby sentenced each to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua, to indemnify the heirs of victim Ahlladin Trinidad y Payumo in the amount of P75,000.00, plus P93,000.00 as actual damages (Exh. "C"), and the further sum of P50,000.00 as moral damages subject to the corresponding filing fees as a first lien, and to pay the costs of the proceedings.

In the service of their sentence, each of the aforenamed accused being a detention prisoner, shall be credited with the full time during which he had undergone preventive imprisonment, pursuant to art. 29 of the Revised Penal Code.

As to the other two accused still at-large, Alfredo Gongon alias Fred and Florante Flores alias Nante, let alias warrant of arrest issue against them and, pending their actual apprehension, let the record of this case be in the meantime committed to the Archives to be recalled therefrom as soon as circumstances demand so.

SO ORDERED.[15]

Therefrom, only Didong appealed to the CA. Eventually, the CA rendered on April 15, 2008 a Decision affirming that of the RTC with a modification as to the damages awarded. The CA reduced the amount assessed as civil indemnity, deleted the award of moral damages, but awarded exemplary damages, as follows:

WHEREFORE, the appealed DECISION dated 15 April 2005 of the Regional Trial Court, Third Judicial Region, Malolos City, Bulacan, Branch 12 is AFFIRMED with the following MODIFICATIONS: (1) the award of civil indemnity is reduced to P50,000.00; (2) the award of moral damages is deleted; and (3) appellant Alfredo dela Cruz is further ordered to pay exemplary damages in the amount of P25,000.00.

SO ORDERED.[16]

On May 20, 2008, Didong filed a timely Notice of Appeal of the appellate court's decision.

On December 3, 2008, the Court directed the parties to submit supplemental briefs if they so desired. The parties manifested their willingness to submit the case on the basis of the records already submitted.

Appellant questions his conviction on the following grounds or issues on which he anchored his appeal to the CA, viz:
I

WHETHER THE COURT A QUO ERRED IN GIVING CREDENCE TO THE TESTIMONIES OF PROSECUTION WITNESSES;

II

WHETHER THE COURT A QUO ERRED IN NOT APPLYING THE RULE THAT CONVICTION OF THE ACCUSED IS BASED ON THE STRENGTH OF THE PROSECUTION'S EVIDENCE AND NOT ON THE WEAKNESS OF THE DEFENSE; and

III

WHETHER THE COURT A QUO ERRED IN FAILING TO APPLY THE RULE THAT IN CASE OF TWO CONFLICTING CULPATORY FACTS AND CIRCUMSTANCES THE ONE THAT IS EXCULPATORY IN NATURE SHOULD BE RESOLVED IN FAVOR OF THE ACCUSED.[17]

The Court's Ruling

We deny the appeal.

Didong urges the Court to overturn his conviction, basing his plea on the supposed contradictory statements by the prosecution's principal witness. He avers: witness Anthony testified that he, Didong, was not part of the group that went to the forest with the victim on the night of the incident; Didong was not in the vicinity of the crime scene when the victim was shot; and Anthony was not an eyewitness to the killing, as deduced from his res gestae statement of "Iyan pala ang pinaputukan ni Tata Fred kagabi" the day after the incident. Rounding up his arguments, Didong alleges that Anthony's Karagdagang Salaysay is in direct conflict with his earlier statement which did not mention appellant as one of the men who was with the victim when killed.

The Court is not convinced.

The appeal essentially assails the credibility accorded by the trial court to the prosecution witnesses' testimonies.

As a matter of settled jurisprudence, the Court generally defers to the trial court's evaluation of the credibility of witness and their testimonies, for it is in a better position to decide questions of credibility having heard the witnesses themselves and observed their attitude and deportment during trial.[18] Accordingly, a finding on the credibility of witnesses, as here, with respect to the testimony of Anthony and Zenaida, deserves a high degree of respect and will not be disturbed on appeal absent a clear showing that the trial court had overlooked, misunderstood, or misapplied some facts or circumstances of weight and substance which could reverse a judgment of conviction.[19] None of the exceptions exists in this case.

To be sure, Anthony's testimony is not without discrepancies. But as the trial court and later the CA found, Anthony was able to satisfactorily explain the perceived inconsistencies in his testimony. As noted by the courts a quo, Anthony first excluded appellant from his sworn statement as the latter had confronted and frightened him into silence about appellant's participation. As the CA observed keenly, "We can only imagine the fright experienced by a young boy who at the tender age of 13 years old was threatened to be killed by appellant. It was only after his fear had subsided that he was able to recount what truly happened on that fateful day."[20] After somehow overcoming the anxiety and the thought of reprisal troubling his young mind, Anthony subsequently identified appellant as among the perpetrators of the crime. As it turned out later, Anthony's fears were not unfounded, as an attempt on his mother's life was made a few months after Ahlladin's murder. Even the attacker apologized to Anthony's mother shortly before taking a shot at her, saying he had just been ordered to kill her by "Mang Teteng," appellant's father. As the trial court noted:

x x x It is, therefore, understandable, if the son Anthony was so afraid of the [accused], especially Alfredo Gongon. Somehow he was able to testify and he did so without visible traces of lying on the stand. His credibility could have really been tried and destroyed if any of his friends and companions at the time he saw the killing was presented in court to belie his testimony. Edwin Samonte was a relative of accused Boyet Samonte, while Ronnel Alimarcan was a relative of accused Alfredo Gongon. The defense could have utilized any one of them to show that Anthony just made up what he said he saw of the killing of the victim by the four (4) accused while the three of them were together under the hut. The only conceivable explanation why the defense did not do that was because Anthony did tell the whole truth and nothing but, when he testified against herein accused. These friends and companions of Anthony when he saw the killing might even corroborate and confirm what he said to the Court as an eyewitness for the prosecution.[21]

Also going against Didong's submission about Anthony's inconsistency is the recognition that affidavits or statements made before the police, which are usually taken ex parte, are often incomplete and inaccurate.[22] Thus, by nature, these affidavits are inferior to open court testimony, and whenever there is inconsistency between the affidavit and the testimony of a witness in court, the testimony commands greater weight. Moreover, inconsistencies between the declaration of the affiant in his sworn statements and those in open court do not necessarily discredit said witness.[23]

All told, the prosecution has discharged the burden of proving the commission of the crime charged beyond reasonable doubt. It was able to establish two things: first, the corpus delicti or the presence of all the elements of the offense of murder; and second, the fact that Didong was the perpetrator of the crime.[24] The fact that Didong was one of the men who killed Ahlladin was proved by the testimony and the positive identification by the prosecution witnesses.

Didong's proffered defense to evade criminal responsibility is too feeble to merit consideration. His defense of alibi cannot overcome, and is in fact destroyed by the categorical testimony of Anthony, who positively pointed to and identified him as one of the malefactors. Moreover, in order to justify an acquittal based on alibi, the accused must establish by clear and convincing evidence that (1) he was somewhere else at the time of the commission of the offense; and (2) it was physically impossible for him to be at the scene of the crime at the time it was committed.[25] And when the law speaks of physical impossibility, the reference is to the distance between the place where the accused was when the crime transpired and the locus criminis, as well as the facility of access between the two places.[26] Where the possibility exists for the accused to be present at the crime scene, the defense of alibi must fail.[27] Evidently, here, the requisites for appreciating alibi are not present. In fact, by appellant's own admission, he was with one of his co-accused the day before Ahlladin's death was uncovered. Even supposing that during the latter part of the day, he really did go home, such a detail does not remove the possibility of his being at the forested area, the scene of the crime.

Finally, the Court lends concurrence to the trial court's determination that treachery attended the killing of Ahlladin.

The essence of treachery is the sudden and unexpected attack by the aggressors on unsuspecting victims, depriving the latter of any real chance to defend themselves, thereby ensuring its commission without risk to the aggressors, and without the slightest provocation on the victim's part.[28] We find that circumstances do exist to justify the finding of treachery in this case. The prosecution alleged and sufficiently proved that Ahlladin was too drunk to fight off any aggression from his four assailants, at least two of them armed. His killers took advantage of his condition and attacked him without considerable difficulty, as plainly seen in the post mortem report on Ahlladin's body. What the trial court wrote indubitably indicated treachery:

From there, [Anthony] saw Didong hit with his piece of wood the nape of Ahladdin then held by the hand by Nante. When Nante released his hold Didong again hit Ahladdin on the back of the knees. After Boyet, Nante and Didong stabbed Ahladdin, Fred Gongon shot him saying "Siguraduhin niyo patay na yan." x x x[29]

We now tackle Didong's civil liability. The appellate court reduced the award of civil indemnity to PhP 50,000, deleted the award of moral damages for want of evidence to support it, and further ordered the payment of PhP 25,000 in exemplary damages.

When as a consequence to a criminal act death ensues, the following damages may be awarded: (1) civil indemnity ex delicto for the death of the victim; (2) actual or compensatory damages; (3) moral damages; and (4) exemplary damages.[30]

Civil indemnity is mandatory and granted to the heirs of the victim without need of proof other than the commission of the crime. The award of civil indemnity of PhP 50,000 is increased to PhP 75,000 in view of the ruling that the crime is murder qualified by the aggravating circumstances of treachery and evident premeditation. Said crime is a heinous crime under Republic Act 7659 punishable by death but now reduced to reclusion perpetua by virtue of RA 9346, which prohibits the imposition of death penalty.

The deletion of the award of moral damages was erroneous. Moral damages are mandatory in cases of murder, without need of allegation and proof other than the death of the victim. The award of PhP 75,000 as moral damages is consequently in order and in accordance with prevailing jurisprudence.[31]

The award of exemplary damages, but in the amount of PhP 30,000, up from the PhP 25,000 the CA granted, is proper under Article 2230 of the Civil Code, since the killing was attended by the qualifying circumstance of treachery. Finally, as documentary evidence[32] of burial expenses was presented during the trial and in fact became the basis of an award of actual damages, a grant of temperate damages is no longer justified. If actual damages cannot be determined because of the absence of supporting receipts, entitlement to said award must be shown with a reasonable degree of certainty under the facts of the case.[33]

WHEREFORE, the appeal is DENIED. The CA Decision dated April 15, 2008 in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01024 finding accused-appellant Alfredo Dela Cruz alias "Didong" guilty of murder is AFFIRMED with the MODIFICATION that he is ordered to pay the heirs of the victim civil indemnity of PhP 75,000, moral damages in the amount of PhP 75,000, and exemplary damages in the increased amount of PhP 30,000.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, (Chairperson), Chico-Nazario, Nachura, and Peralta, JJ., concur.



[1] CA rollo, p. 70.

[2] Rollo, p. 3.

[3] Id.

[4] "Dalawang ibon sa isang putok."

[5] Rollo, p. 4.

[6] CA rollo, p. 5.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 67.

[9] Id. at 70.

[10] Rollo, p. 5.

[11] Records, p. 113.

[12] TSN, April 27, 2004, p. 233.

[13] Id. at 235.

[14] Id. at 237.

[15] CA rollo, pp. 36-37. Penned by Judge Crisanto C. Concepcion.

[16] Rollo, p. 12. Penned by Associate Justice Japar B. Dimaampo and concurred in by Associate Justices Mario L. GuariƱa III and Romeo F. Barza.

[17] Id. at 7.

[18] People v. Malibiran, G.R. No. 178301, April 24, 2009.

[19] Lascano v. People, G.R. No. 166241, September 7, 2007, 532 SCRA 515.

[20] Rollo, p. 10.

[21] CA rollo, pp. 72-73.

[22] See Cruz v. People, G.R. No. 154502, April 27, 2007, 522 SCRA 391.

[23] People v. Antonio, 390 Phil. 989 (2000).

[24] People v. Gidoc, G.R. No. 185162, April 24, 2009.

[25] People v. Molina, 370 Phil. 546 (1999).

[26] People v. Delim, G.R. No. 175942, September 13, 2007, 533 SCRA 366.

[27] People v. Dela Cruz, G.R. No. 168173, December 24, 2008.

[28] People v. Mara, G.R. No. 184050, May 8, 2009.

[29] CA, rollo p. 32.

[30] Gidoc, supra note 23.

[31] People v. Sarcia, G.R. No. 169641, September 10, 2009.

[32] Records, p. 110. Exhibit "L."

[33] Gidoc, supra note 23.

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