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365 Phil. 63


[ G.R. No. 129058, March 29, 1999 ]




By pleading guilty to the rape and killing of a 9-year old girl a death sentence would seem inevitable. But a mere plea of guilt is not sufficient for conviction as the court must first assure itself that the accused fully understood the consequences of his plea. In the instant case, the trial court failed to conduct a searching inquiry into the voluntariness of his admission of guilt and that he fully comprehended the implications thereof. As the court a quo inadequately discharged its duty of conducting a searching inquiry, the plea of guilt to a capital offense therefore inevitably became null and void.[1]

On 22 July 1995, at around 10:00 o'clock in the morning, Paulino Sevilleno y Villanueva alias Tamayo went to Barangay Guadalupe, San Carlos City. He brought with him bread and ice candy for his 9-year old and 8-year old nieces, Virginia and Norma, both surnamed Baquia. He then invited Virginia to accompany him to Sitio Guindali-an "to see (a) beta show."[2] To reach the place, Paulino and Virginia passed through the sugarcane fields.

At around 11:00 o'clock that same morning, Rogelio Baquia, father of Virginia and Norma, arrived. Not seeing Virginia in their house, Rogelio asked Norma where her sister was. After learning from her that Virginia had gone with accused Paulino to Sitio Guindali-an, Rogelio immediately set out to look for them.

Rogelio failed to find his daughter upon reaching Sitio Guindali-an; instead, he bumped into the accused. When asked about Virginia the accused denied knowing where she was. However, Rogelio noticed that the accused had nail scratches on his neck and a wound on his left cheek.

Rogelio continued his search. He was accompanied by Eugenio Tiongson, a relative of the accused. The next day they met the accused at the house of the former barangay captain of Sitio Guindali-an, Paeng Lopez. Eugenio asked Paulino where Virginia was. This time the accused replied that she was in a sugarcane field known as "Campo 9," still a part of Guadalupe, like Sitio Guindali-an. Accompanied by some police officers, Rogelio and Eugenio proceeded to "Campo 9." There they found Virginia covered with dried leaves, her dress raised to her armpits; the lower portion of her torso was naked; her legs were spread apart. She had wounds on various parts of her body. She was dead.[3]

Dr. Arnel Laurence Q. Portuguez, City Health Officer of San Carlos City, autopsied the body of Virginia. His postmortem examination showed these findings: linear abrasion over hematoma, 3.0 x 2.0 cm., right superior anterior neck; linear abrasion over hematoma, 2.5 x 3.0 cm., left superior anterior neck; hematoma 9.0 x 4.0 cm., right inguinal area; hematoma 9.0 x 5.0 cm., left inguinal area; superficial hymenal laceration 0.5 cm., at 12 o'clock position, with clot formation at intuitus; abrasion 5.5 x 4.0 cm., left superior gluteal area; abrasion 5.0 x 3.0 cm., right superior gluteal area; abrasion 6.0 x 2.0 cm., right inferior lateral gluteal area; vaginal smear showing absence of sperm cells except pus cells and epithelial cells. Cause of death: asphyxia secondary to strangulation.[4] Based on his findings, Dr. Portuguez concluded that Virginia was raped and then strangled to death.

When news of the gruesome rape and killing spread around the community, the local residents immediately arrested the accused Paulino Sevilleno and turned him over to the police authorities. Thereafter, on 25 July 1995, the accused was charged with rape with homicide for having carnal knowledge of Virginia Baquia, a minor, 9 years of age, by means of force, violence and intimidation and against her will, and after ravishing her, with intent to hide his identity and to prevent discovery thereof, with intent to kill, strangled her which directly caused her death.[5]

The arraignment where the accused was represented by Atty. Vic Agravante of the Public Attorney's Office proceeded thus -
Court: Call the case x x x x

Interpreter: Appearances?.

Pros. Tabinas: Appearing for the government, ready for arraignment.

Atty. Agravante: Respectfully appearing for the accused, ready, you Honor.

Court: Arraign the accused.

Stenographer's Observation: Accused was arraigned in a Cebuano language duly known and understood by him, pleaded GUILTY.

COURT (to accused): Do you understand your plea of guilty?

Accused: Yes, sir.

Q. Do you know that your plea of guilty could bring death penalty?

A. Yes, sir.

Court (to Pros. Tabinas): You still have to present your evidence.

Pros. Tabinas: Yes, your honor.[6]
The hearing for the presentation of the evidence for the prosecution was scheduled on 31 August 1995. It was however reset several times. On 10 October 1995 the accused manifested that he had no counsel. Thus, the trial court ordered the Public Attorney's Office to provide a counsel de oficio for him. The next hearing was set on 21 November 1995.[7]

On 28 October 1995, taking advantage of typhoon "Pepang" that struck the island of Negros, the accused escaped from detention, of which the Presiding judge was accordingly informed.

The records show that Atty. Vic Agravante assisted the accused during the arraignment only. In the succeeding hearings, Atty. Danilo Pabalinas, another lawyer of PAO, represented the accused. But after the escape Atty. Pabalinas sought permission from the court to be released from his duty to assist the accused. The court then directed that the accused be tried in absentia and counsel was relieved from his responsibility to his client and the court.[8]

The prosecution presented the examining physician as well as Maria Lariosa and Norma Baquia. Notably, these witnesses were not cross-examined because, as already adverted to, Atty. Pabalinas earlier excused himself from the case. Neither did the court appoint another counsel for the accused.

The next hearing was set on 30 January 1996. However, for various reasons, the hearing was reset to 13 March 1996, 21 April 1996, 18 June 1996 and 17 July 1996.

Meanwhile, on 10 July 1996 the Jail Warden of San Carlos City reported to the court that the accused had been recaptured.[9]

Atty. Florentino Saldavia, also of PAO, was appointed counsel de oficio for the accused. On 17 July 1996 the prosecution presented Rogelio Baquia as its last witness. Atty. Saldavia cross-examined Rogelio but his questions were only considered token, and even irrelevant. Then the prosecution rested.

On 28 August 1996, the date set for the presentation of the evidence for the defense, Atty. Saldavia moved that the hearing be reset as he was not feeling well. On 19 November 1996, Atty. Saldavia again moved for postponement and the hearing was reset to 3 December 1996 on which date, instead of presenting evidence, Atty. Saldavia manifested that he was submitting the case for decision but invoking the plea of guilt of the accused as a mitigating circumstance. As recorded, the hearing proceeded thus -
Court: Call the case x x x x

Interpreter: Appearances.

Pros. Tabinas: Appearing for the government.

Atty. Saldavia: For the accused. Your honor please, this is already the turn of the defense to present evidence. He already pleaded GUILTY. We have no mitigating circumstance to prove except the plea of guilty. I believe there is no need of presenting evidence, he already pleaded guilty.

Court: (to Atty. Saldavia): You will rest the case?

Atty. Saldavia: Yes, your honor.

Pros. Tabinas: You will invoke the mitigating circumstance of plea of guilty?

Atty. Saldavia: Yes.

Pros. Tabinas: We have no objection to that.

Court: Order.

When this case was called for the presentation of evidence for the accused, counsel for the accused manifested that he had no evidence to present in favor of the accused except the plea of GUILTY made in open court.

In view thereof, the above-entitled case is hereby submitted for decision based on the evidence presented by the prosecution without the accused presenting evidence in his behalf except the plea of GUILTY which is admitted by the prosecution.

WHEREFORE, the above-entitled case is hereby submitted for decision.

On 6 March 1997 the Regional Trial Court-Br. 57, San Carlos City, rendered its decision finding the accused guilty of rape with homicide and sentencing him to death and to pay the heirs of Virginia Baquia -P50,000.00 plus costs.[11]

This case is now on automatic review. The defense contends that the court a quo erred in convicting the accused and imposing upon him the penalty of death as it failed to observe the required procedure for cases where the accused pleads guilty to a capital offense when arraigned.[12] The defense also argues that the arraignment conducted by the trial court was null and void as it did not conduct a "searching inquiry" before accepting the plea of guilt and sentencing the accused to death. It concludes that since the arraignment was fatally defective and not in accordance with law, the case must be remanded to the court of origin for the proper arraignment of the accused before the capital punishment may be imposed.

We sustain the defense. Under Sec. 3, Rule 116, of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure, when the accused pleads guilty to a capital offense, the court shall conduct a searching inquiry into the voluntariness and full comprehension of the consequences of his plea. It must also require the prosecution to prove his guilt and the precise degree of his culpability. If the accused so desires he may also present evidence in his behalf. This procedure is mandatory and a judge who fails to observe it commits grave abuse of discretion.[13]

The questions propounded by the trial judge during arraignment hardly satisfied the requisite searching inquiry. Regrettably, there were only two (2) questions propounded to the accused: First. Do you understand your plea of guilt? Second. Do you know that your plea of guilt could bring death penalty? In every case where the accused enters a plea of guilty to a capital offense, especially where he is an ignorant person with little or no education, the proper and prudent course to follow is to take such evidence as are available and necessary in support of the material allegations of the information, including the aggravating circumstances therein enumerated, not only to satisfy the trial judge himself but also to aid the Supreme Court in determining whether the accused really and truly understood and comprehended the meaning, full significance and consequences of his plea.[14]

In the instant case, the trial court did not bother to explain the essential elements of the crime of rape with homicide with which the accused was charged. On the same note, the trial judge also failed to inform the accused the certainty by which the death penalty would be imposed on him and the fact that he would also be made to indemnify the heirs of his victim. As a result, the accused was not properly accorded his fundamental right to be informed of the precise nature of the accusation leveled against him.[15] Thus, it is with apprehension that ruling for the affirmance of the decision in this case will prejudice the due observance of the fundamental requirements of fairness and due process.[16] The constitutional rights of the accused are for the protection of the guilty and of the innocent alike. Only with the assurance that even the guilty shall be given the benefit of every constitutional guaranty can the innocent be secure in the same rights.[17]

Trial courts must exercise meticulous care in accepting a plea of guilty in a capital offense. Judges are duty-bound to be extra solicitous in seeing to it that when an accused pleads guilty he understands fully the meaning of his plea and the import of his inevitable conviction.[18] Courts must proceed with more care where the possible punishment is in its severest form - death - for the reason that the execution of such a sentence is irrevocable. Experience has shown that innocent persons have at times pleaded guilty.[19] Only a clear, definite and unconditional plea of guilty by the accused must be accepted by trial courts.[20] There is no such rule which provides that simply because the accused pleaded guilty to the charge that his conviction should automatically follow.[21] A judge should always be an embodiment of competence.[22] As an administrator of justice, it is imperative that the trial judge carry out his duties ably and competently so as not to erode public confidence in the judiciary.

It is quite unfortunate that Attys. Vic Agravante, Danilo Pabalinas and Florentino Saldavia, all of PAO, were remiss in their duties as defenders of the accused. Atty. Agravante did not take time to explain to his client the nature of the crime of which he was charged and the gravity of the consequences of his plea. Instead, he readily agreed to the accused pleading guilty to a capital offense. In the succeeding hearings, Atty. Pabalinas was supposed to assist the accused ably but miserably failed. When the case was called and appearances noted, the trial judge informed the parties that the accused had escaped from detention. It was then that the prosecution and the defense, including the trial court, agreed that the accused would be tried in absentia. Then, at this juncture, Atty. Pabalinas sought to be relieved of his responsibilities as counsel de oficio which, unfortunately, the court also granted. The court proceeded with the presentation of three (3) prosecution witnesses who testified but were never cross-examined because Atty. Pabalinas already left the courtroom, apparently with the consent of the trial court. Nobody was assigned to replace Atty. Pabalinas. Consequently, not only was the accused tried in absentia, he was also tried without the assistance of counsel.

When the prosecution rested its case, Atty. Saldavia of the PAO asked for the postponement of the succeeding hearings not only once but thrice allegedly because he was not feeling well. Interestingly, when the time came for him to adduce evidence in behalf of the accused, he manifested that since his client had already pleaded guilty he would no longer present any evidence. He only invoked the mitigating circumstance of plea of guilty.

The plea of guilty as a mitigating circumstance is misplaced. Not under any circumstance would any admission of guilt affect or reduce the death sentence.[23] Art. 335 of the Revised Penal Code prescribes the penalty of death when by reason or on the occasion of the rape, a homicide is committed. Death is a single indivisible penalty and corollary to Art. 63 of the Revised Penal Code, in all cases in which a single indivisible penalty is prescribed, it shall be applied by the courts regardless of any mitigating or aggravating circumstance that may have attended the commission of the offense.

The court below also erred in disregarding the testimony of Norma Baquia "for the reason that her testimony failed to establish that the incident happened within the territorial jurisdiction of this court."[24] The court did not consider her testimony purportedly because she only testified that her sister Virginia went with the accused to Guindali-an without specifying as to what municipality or city it was part of.[25] Again, this is error. Section 1, Rule 129 of the Rules of Court requires courts to take judicial notice, without the introduction of evidence, of the existence and geographical divisions of our country. There is only one Sitio Guindali-an, Brgy. Guadalupe, San Carlos City (Negros Occidental).

We cannot right finis to this discussion without making known our displeasure over the manner by which the PAO lawyers dispensed with their duties. All three (3) of them displayed manifest disinterest on the plight of their client. They lacked vigor and dedication to their work. Atty. Agravante did not explain to the accused the nature of the crime of which he was charged and the consequences of his plea. Atty. Pabalinas, instead of assisting the accused, hastily left the courtroom after obtaining leave while the prosecution was presenting its three (3) witnesses. Resultingly, all three (3) witnesses were never cross-examined. On the other hand, Atty. Saldavia moved for the postponement of the scheduled hearings during which he was supposed to present evidence for the defense; worse, on the last scheduled hearing he submitted the case for decision without presenting evidence. In short, no evidence was ever presented for the defense. And, as if to compound his deficiency with ignorance, Atty. Saldavia relied on his client's plea of guilt in the mistaken belief that it would modify and reduce to reclusion perpetua the imposable penalty of death.

Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility requires every lawyer to serve his client with utmost dedication, competence and diligence. He must not neglect a legal matter entrusted to him, and his negligence in this regard renders him administratively liable.[26] Obviously, in the instant case, the aforenamed defense lawyers did not protect, much less uphold, the fundamental rights of the accused. Instead, they haphazardly performed their function as counsel de oficio to the detriment and prejudice of the accused Sevilleno, however guilty he might have been found to be after trial. Inevitably, this Court must advise Attys. Agravante, Pabalinas and Saldavia to adhere closely and faithfully to the tenets espoused in the Code of Professional Responsibility; otherwise, commission of any similar act in the future will be severely sanctioned.

WHEREFORE, the 6 March 1997 Decision of the Regional Trial Court-Br. 57, San Carlos City (Negros Occidental), in Crim. Case No. 129058, convicting the accused PAULINO SEVILLENO Y VILLANUEVA alias Tamayo of Rape with Homicide and sentencing him to DEATH is ANNULLED and SET ASIDE and the case is REMANDED to the court of origin for the proper arraignment and trial of the accused until terminated.


Davide, Jr., C.J., (Chairman), Romero, Melo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Purisima, Pardo, Buena, and Gonzaga-Reyes, JJ., concur.

[1] People v. Bulalake, 106 Phil. 767 (1959).

[2] TSN, 21 November 1995, p. 11.

[3] TSN, 17 July 1996, p. 10.

[4] Exhibit "A", Records, p. 11.

[5] Rollo, p. 10.

[6] TSN, 15 August 1995, pp. 1-2.

[7] Records, p. 33.

[8] Id., p. 39.

[9] Id., p. 72.

[10] TSN, 3 December 1996, pp. 1-2.

[11] Rollo, p. 26.

[12] Id., p. 49.

[13] People v. Dayot, G.R. No. 88281, 10 July 1990, 187 SCRA 641.

[14] See Note 1.

[15] People v. Estomaca, G.R. Nos. 117485-86, 22 April 1996, 256 SCRA 429.

[16] People v. Gonzaga, No. L-48373, 30 January 1984, 127 SCRA 158.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] People v. Albert, G.R. No. 114001, 14 December 1995, 251 SCRA 136.

[20] Ibid.

[21] People v. Mendoza, G.R. No. 80845, 14 March 1994, 231 SCRA 264.

[22] Rule 1.01, Canon 1, Code of Judicial Conduct.

[23] See Note 15, p. 434.

[24] Rollo, p. 23.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Rule 18.03, Canon 18, Code of Professional Responsibility.

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