664 Phil. 679; 108 OG No. 11, 1147 (March 19, 2012)

THIRD DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 183092, May 30, 2011 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, APPELLEE, VS. ANTONIO SABELLA Y BRAGAIS, APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

BRION, J.:

We decide the appeal, filed by accused Antonio Sabella y Bragais (appellant), from the March 4, 2008 Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01958.[1] The appealed Decision affirmed with modification the Decision of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of San Jose, Camarines Sur, Branch 30,  in Criminal Case No. T-1934, finding the appellant guilty with the murder, qualified by treachery, of Prudencio Labides, and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua.

The Factual Antecedents    

On November 19, 1998, the prosecution charged the appellant with murder[2] before the RTC, under the following information:

That on or about the 28th day of September 1998 in the evening thereof, at Barangay Nato, Municipality of Sagñay, Province of Camarines Sur, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court the above-named accused with intent to kill by means of treachery and evident premeditation, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously stab from behind with the use of a bolo commonly known as "palas" one Prudencio Labides, thus inflicting upon the victim mortal stab wounds as shown in the necropsy report issued by Roger E. Atanacio, Municipal Health Officer, Sagñay, Camarines Sur, which was the direct and immediate cause of his instantaneous death, to the damage and prejudice of the heirs of the late Prudencio Labides.[3]

The appellant pleaded not guilty on arraignment and interposed self-defense at the pre-trial.[4] Pursuant to Section 11(e), Rule 119 of the Rules of Court, a reverse trial ensued.

The Appellant's Version

The evidence for the appellant consisted of his testimony, the testimonies of four (4) witnesses, namely, Virgilio Bolima, Raymundo Melchor, Marilyn Palma and Leonardo Credo, the formal presentation of the excerpts of the police blotter signed by Police Inspector Efren Moreno, the bolo with its scabbard which the appellant surrendered to the police authorities of Sagñay, Camarines Sur, and a sketch.

The appellant's evidence and version of events are summarized below.

At about 9:00 p.m. of September 28, 1998, the appellant was sleeping when he was awakened by the noise of someone trying to break into his house. Once inside, the unidentified man attacked him with a piece of rounded wood, but he parried the blow and took hold, from his bedside, of an object that he initially thought was a nightstick. He hit the man once, and only then realized that his weapon was a bolo. Wounded, the unidentified man went to the lighted portion of his residence. The appellant immediately recognized the man as Prudencio Labides. After Labides left, the appellant immediately surrendered to the police at its station in Sagñay, Camarines Sur and turned over his bolo.[5]

The appellant's story was corroborated by the testimonies of Leonardo Credo and Virgilio Bolima who claimed to be in the vicinity of the appellant's house on the night of the incident. According to the two witnesses, they saw Labides, who appeared to be wounded, coming out of the appellant's house into the illuminated portion of the road from where he shouted for help. Caught by surprise, the two witnesses did not help Labides. Subsequently, they saw two (2) men arrive in a tricycle. They assisted Labides in boarding the tricycle, which then drove away in the direction of the poblacion of Sagñay, Camarines Sur.[6]

The Prosecution's Version

The evidence for the prosecution consisted of the testimonies of the victim's wife, Alicia Labides, and four (4) witnesses, namely, Willy Duro, Romulo Competente, Paterno Laurenio and Dr. Roger Atanacio; the formal presentation of the Necropsy Report signed by Dr. Roger Atanacio; the appellant's bolo; the list of funeral and other expenses incurred by the victim's wife, and the latter's sworn statement. From these pieces of evidence, we reconstruct the prosecution's version of events summarized below.

In the evening of September 28, 1998, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Romulo Competente was walking home after talking to the victim at Marcos Verdeflor's home. Along the way, Competente encountered the appellant who suddenly hit him in the back with a bolo and threatened to cut off his head if he did not go home. Feeling pain in his back due to the blow, Competente decided to rest beside a nearby banana plant. Moments later, he saw the appellant stab Prudencio Labides (who had just left Marcos Verdeflor's house) in the abdomen with a bolo about two (2) feet long. When Labides turned away from the appellant, the latter stabbed Labides a second time in the back. Fearful because of what he had just witnessed, Competente hurried home.[7]

Meanwhile, Marcos Verdeflor appeared at Willy Duro's  house to ask for help for Labides. Duro and Verdeflor boarded Duro's tricycle and proceeded to Kikoy Verdeflor's yard where Labides laid wounded and bleeding. According to Duro, while they were helping Labides into his tricycle, he saw the appellant, ten meters away, still holding the bolo. Duro at that point heard the appellant say, "[y]ou must not bring him (Prudencio) anymore to the hospital because he will not survive; that is the way to kill a man."[8]

Duro and Verdeflor then brought Labides to Paterno Laurenio's house to ask for the latter's assistance in getting an ambulance.[9] When Laurenio asked Labides who stabbed him, Labides replied "Antonio Sabella."[10] Laurenio further testified that at the time they loaded the victim into the ambulance, Labides was already "lupaypay" or very weak.[11] Labides was declared dead on arrival, when they arrived at the Bicol Medical Center in Naga City.[12]

Dr. Roger Atanacio's postmortem examination revealed that Labides died due to massive blood loss from two stab wounds sustained in the abdomen and at the back.[13] He described the two wounds as follows:

  1. Stabbed (sic) wound, 3 inches long, vertical, 1 inch above umbilicus, along median line with intestinal evisceration.
  2. Stabbed (sic) wound, 2 inches long, 3 inches depth, vertical, left, lumbar area.

CAUSE OF DEATH: HEMORRHAGE.[14]

Alicia Labides, the victim's widow, testified that she spent P30,718.00 for the victim's wake and burial, evidenced by a list of expenses.[15]

The RTC Ruling


In its July 16, 2001 Decision, the RTC found the appellant guilty of murder. In brushing aside the appellant's claim of self-defense, the RTC noted that the appellant failed to establish unlawful aggression on the part of Labides. The RTC observed that the appellant failed to produce any evidence to support his claim that Labides broke into his house, such as evidence of a damaged door or any damage done to the house. The appellant also failed to introduce into evidence the piece of wood that Labides allegedly tried to attack him with. In contrast, Dr. Atanacio's testimony on the number, location and severity of Labides' wounds disproved the appellant's claim of self-defense.

The RTC also gave credence to the positive testimony of the prosecution witnesses, particularly Laurenio's testimony that Labides identified the appellant as his assailant before he died, classifying the statement as a dying declaration.

The RTC appreciated the qualifying circumstance of treachery because the attack was sudden and unexpected, rendering the victim unable and unprepared to defend himself. But the court disregarded the aggravating circumstance of evident premeditation because it was not duly established at the trial. Appreciating in the appellant's favor the mitigating circumstance of voluntary surrender, the RTC sentenced the appellant to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua. The RTC ordered the appellant to pay the heirs of the victim P50,000.00 as civil indemnity and P30,718.00 as actual damages for the wake and burial expenses.[16]

The CA Ruling

On intermediate appellate review, the CA affirmed the findings of the RTC, but modified the award of damages. It deleted the award of P30,718.00 as actual damages for lack of receipts. In lieu thereof, the CA awarded P25,000.00 as temperate damages. The appellate court also awarded P50,000.00 as moral damages.[17]

From the CA, the case is now with us for final review.

Our Ruling

We affirm the appellant's guilt.

When an accused admits killing the victim but invokes self-defense to escape criminal liability, the accused assumes the burden to establish his plea by credible, clear and convincing evidence; otherwise, conviction would follow from his admission that he killed the victim.[18]

To escape liability, one who admits killing another in the name of self-defense bears the burden of proving: (1) unlawful aggression on the part of the victim; (2) reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel it; and (3) lack of sufficient provocation on the part of the person claiming self-defense.[19]

The most important element in self-defense is unlawful aggression - there can be no self-defense unless the victim first committed unlawful aggression against the person who resorted to self-defense.[20] Unlawful aggression presupposes an actual, sudden and unexpected attack or imminent danger thereof, not just a threatening or intimidating attitude.[21]

In this case, the appellant miserably failed to prove unlawful aggression  on  the  part  of Labides.  As both the RTC and the CA observed, there was no evidence to support the appellant's claim that Labides broke into his home by destroying the door. Nor was there any evidence that Labides tried to attack him with a piece of wood. The appellant himself admitted that he did not sustain any injury due to the incident.

In contrast, the physical evidence belies the appellant's claim of self-defense. The number, location and severity of the hack wounds the appellant inflicted on Labides all indicate an intention to kill, and not merely wound or defend. Furthermore, Dr. Atanacio's postmortem findings are consistent with Competente's eyewitness account, and are further corroborated by Labides' ante-mortem statement to Paterno Laurenio less than an hour after the stabbing. The totality of this evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that the aggressor was in fact the appellant and not Labides.

Both the RTC and the CA correctly appreciated the qualifying circumstance of treachery. From the established set of facts, the appellant's attack on Labides was deliberate, sudden and unexpected; the victim was unarmed and completely unaware of any impending danger to his life.[22] The treachery employed is all the more emphasized when we recall that the appellant stabbed the victim a second time in the back, despite the lack of any resistance from Labides, and even after Labides had already been stabbed in the stomach. Under the circumstances, the RTC and the CA correctly sentenced the appellant to suffer the penalty of  reclusion perpetua, regardless of the presence of the mitigating circumstance of voluntary surrender.[23]

While we affirm the CA's factual findings and the imprisonment imposed, we find it necessary to award the heirs of Prudencio Labides with exemplary damages, in keeping with Article 2230 of the Civil Code, which provides, "[i]n criminal offenses, exemplary damages as part of the civil liability may be imposed when the crime was committed with one or more aggravating circumstances." The award of exemplary damages is fixed at P30,000.00 to conform with recent jurisprudence.[24]

WHEREFORE, the March 4, 2008 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-H.C. No. 01958 is hereby AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION. Appellant Antonio Sabella y Bragais is found guilty of murder as defined and penalized in Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code, and is sentenced to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua. He is further ordered to pay the heirs of Prudencio Labides P50,000.00 as civil indemnity ex delicto, P50,000.00 as moral damages, P25,000.00 as temperate damages, and P30,000.00 as exemplary damages.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio Morales, (Chairperson),  Bersamin, Villarama, Jr., and  Sereno, JJ., concur.



[1] Penned by Associate Justice Ramon A. Bato, Jr., and concurred in by Associate Justice Andres B. Reyes, Jr. and Associate Justice Jose C. Mendoza (now a member of this Court) of the Sixth Division of the CA; rollo, pp. 3-10.

[2] Under Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended by Republic Act No. 7659 or the Death Penalty Law.

[3]  CA rollo, p. 8.

[4]  Original records, p. 33.

[5] TSN, March 24, 1999, pp. 2-5.

[6] Rollo, p. 26.

[7]  TSN, March 13, 2000, pp. 4-6.

[8]  CA rollo, p. 31.

[9]  TSN, February 16, 2000, pp. 3-6.

[10] TSN, January 9, 2000, p. 10.

[11] Id. at 11.

[12] Id. at 12.

[13] TSN, February 16, 2000, pp. 16-17; Exhibit "A," original records, p. 2.

[14] CA rollo, pp. 51-52.

[15] TSN, December 12, 2000, p. 7; Exhibit "X," original records, p. 293.

[16] Original records, pp. 381-403.

[17] The dispositive portion of the CA Decision reads:

WHEREFORE, the Decision dated July 16, 2001 of the Regional Trial Court of San Jose, Camarines Sur, Branch 30, in Criminal Case No. T-1934 finding appellant Antonio Sabella guilty of murder, and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua is AFFIRMED with MODIFICATIONS. The actual damages awarded by the trial court is hereby DELETED, in its stead, appellant is ordered to pay the heirs of the victim temperate damages in the amount of P25,000.00. Appellant is further ordered to pay the heirs of the victim the amount of P50,000.00 as moral damages aside from the P50,000.00 civil indemnity awarded by the trial court.

SO ORDERED. (CA rollo, pp. 120-121).

[18] People v. Tagana, G.R. No. 133027, March 4, 2004, 424 SCRA 620, 634.

[19] People v. Manulit, G.R. No. 188602, November 17, 2010; and People v. Lalongisip, G.R. No. 188331,

June 16, 2010, 621 SCRA 169, 177.

[20]    People v. Catbagan, G.R. Nos. 149430-32, February 23, 2004, 423 SCRA 535, 540.

[21]   Toledo v. People, G.R. No. 158057, September 24, 2004, 439 SCRA 94, 109.

[22] People v. Torres, G.R. No. 176262, September 11, 2007, 532 SCRA 654, 667; and People v. Albarido, G.R. No. 102367, October 25, 2001, 368 SCRA 194, 208.

[23] Article 63(3) of the Revised Penal Code reads:

(3) When the commission of the act is attended by some mitigating circumstances and there is no aggravating circumstance, the lesser penalty shall be applied.

[24] People v. Dela Cruz, G.R. No. 188353, February 16, 2010, 612 SCRA 738, 752; and People v. Gutierrez, G.R. No. 188602, February 4, 2010, 611 SCRA 633, 647.



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