401 Phil. 463

EN BANC

[ G.R. No. 130281, December 15, 2000 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. FELIX CELESTE, ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N

QUISUMBING, J.:

On automatic review is the decision dated August 4, 1997 of the Regional Trial Court of Pasay City, Branch 114, in Criminal Case No. 96-9270, convicting appellant Felix Celeste for murder and imposing on him the death penalty.

Appellant Felix Celeste y Sison and one John Doe were charged with murder allegedly committed as follows:

"That on or about the 20th day of September 1996, in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, above-named accused, Felix Celeste y Sison and John Doe, conspiring and confederating together and mutually helping one another did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously with deliberate intent to kill and with evident premeditation and treachery, attack, assault and use personal violence upon the person of Roy Lique y Delinla by hitting him on the head with a steel pipe causing upon the latter a mortal wound which caused his instantaneous death.

Contrary to law."[1]

While John Doe remained at large, appellant on arraignment pleaded not guilty.  Trial on the merits then ensued.

The prosecution presented five (5) witnesses, namely: 1) Angelito Catalan, a tricycle driver who witnessed the incident; 2) Rosemarie Bebing, floor manager of "Suvilla Sing-Along and Restaurant" located at Pasay City Rotonda where the victim used to deliver ice; 3) SPO2 Antonio Conlu, Mobile Patrol Division, Pasay City Police; 4) Marlon Lique, elder brother of the victim; and 5) Dr. Ludovino Lagat, NBI Medico-Legal Officer, who conducted the post mortem examination of the cadaver of the victim.

Angelito Catalan testified that at about 11:20 P.M. on September 20, 1996 he was driving his pedicab with two women passengers aboard along Protacio Street toward Taft Avenue in Pasay City.  He saw a man, later identified as appellant Felix Celeste, block the pedicab driven by Roy Lique.  Appellant then grabbed the handlebars of the bicycle, effectively stopping the pedicab.  Without warning, another man approached Roy from behind and struck him at the back of his head with a lead pipe.  Roy fell on the sidecar of his pedicab while appellant was still in front of the former's pedicab.  The pipe-wielding man then ran away.  Catalan approached and asked appellant about the victim and the latter responded "Pinalo niya". Catalan knew that the person who struck Roy and who ran away was with appellant at the time of the incident. Fearful of being involved, his passengers then urged Catalan to bring them to their destination.  Shortly, Catalan returned to the place where the mauling happened and found the victim slumped on his pedicab.  He reported the incident to a passing police car.  The police patrol proceeded to Protacio Street and found the victim already dead.  Catalan did not tell the policemen what he saw because at that time the latter were busy interviewing a balut vendor who claimed to have witnessed the incident.  On September 23, 1996, upon learning that no witness could be found, Catalan reported what he saw to SPO2 Antonio Conlu of the Pasay City Police.  At the station, he identified appellant in a police line-up.

SPO2 Antonio Conlu testified that while he was at the Pasay City Police Station at about 1:30 A.M. on September 21, 1996, he received a telephone call for police assistance from Rosemarie Bebing of the Suvilla Sing-Along and Restaurant located at the Rotonda, Pasay City.  She reported that appellant, who was drunk at the time, was making trouble in the restaurant.  She named appellant as the suspect in the mauling incident of September 19, 1996 in the restaurant premises.  SPO2 Conlu, with other police officers, proceeded to the restaurant and invited appellant for investigation.  They also talked to Bebing.  At the police station, appellant was apprised of his constitutional rights.  Since appellant's lawyer failed to appear at the inquest, Celeste was temporarily placed in the safety cell of the police station.  At about 9:30 P.M. of September 21, 1996, Bebing and one Juliet Bariuan, a guest relations officer (GRO) of the Suvilla Sing-Along and Restaurant, arrived at the police station and voluntarily gave their statements.  On September 23, 1996, SPO2 Conlu asked Catalan to identify appellant in a police line-up.  He took Catalan's sworn statement.  The same day, he also asked Bebing to give her sworn statement for the second time and identify Celeste.

Rosemarie Bebing testified she reported for work as floor manager of the Suvilla Sing-Along and Restaurant on September 19, 1996.  She knew appellant because the latter delivered ice to the restaurant until his services were discontinued.  She also knew Roy Lique who replaced appellant as delivery boy of the ice supplier.  Roy had been delivering ice to the restaurant for just two weeks before his death. On September 19, 1996 at about 11:00 P.M., Bebing met Celeste at the club. He was complaining about his being replaced.  Bebing told him to talk to the owner, Margarita Sureta, but she was already sleeping at that time and nobody wanted to awaken her.  Bebing then went out of the restaurant and she was followed by Celeste with a companion. At that moment, Roy came in. Suddenly Celeste struck Roy at the back of the head causing him to reel forward, almost hitting the ground.  Had he not covered himself with his hands, he could have fallen with the next four successive blows by Celeste.  Bebing intervened.  Celeste was pacified but he angrily threatened Roy, "Dadanak ang dugo sa lugar na ito pag magpatuloy kang magdeliver ng yelo".  Lique asked Bebing who Celeste was and she just told Roy to leave.  Roy was about to mount his delivery pedicab, when Celeste kicked the pedicab very hard prompting Bebing to signal Roy to immediately leave after handing him the payment of the ice.  Celeste was still mad and she heard him say, "Hindi ninyo alam ang binabanga ninyo". According to Bebing, the incident was witnessed by many people in the club including GRO Juliet Bariuan.

The following day, September 20, 1996, Bebing was again in Suvilla Sing-Along and Restaurant at about 11:00 P.M.  She saw Roy deliver ice and leave immediately in the direction of Taft Avenue towards Protacio Street.  The next day, when she reported again for work, the restaurant owner and the cashier informed her that Roy was killed the night before.  At about 1:00 A.M., she went to the Pasay City Police Station and gave her statement to SPO2 Conlu about the mauling incident on September 19, 1996.  At about 2:00 A.M. on September 23, 1996, she went to the Pasay City Police Station to give her statement a second time and identify appellant Felix Celeste in a police line-up.

Marlon Lique, elder brother of the victim, testified that Roy was the second to the youngest of the seven (7) children of Jose and Flor Lique of Monreal, Masbate.  Roy was sixteen years old and a high school graduate when he came to Manila to work and study, six (6) months before the incident.  He had just started working as ice delivery boy.  Marlon claimed that the Liques spent P11,000.00 for funeral expenses and P10,000.00 for other expenses, including the transportation of Roy's body to Monreal, Masbate, where he was buried on October 1, 1996.  They incurred additional expenses amounting to of P15,000.00 for Roy's wake in Monreal.  He placed the moral damages suffered by the family at P300,000.00.

Dr. Ludovino Lagat, medico-legal officer of the National Bureau of Investigation, testified that on September 21, 1996 he conducted a post-mortem examination of the victim's cadaver.  He found that Roy sustained injuries on the arm and shoulder; a contused abrasion in the infra-auricular area; and a lacerated wound 4 cm. by 3 cm. in the occipital area at the back of the head.  This fatal wound was inflicted by a hard object from behind the victim.  The cause of death was traumatic head injuries causing subdural hemorrhage.

The first witness for the defense was Roberto Remot, a security guard of EDSA-Taft Center, where appellant's stall is located. He testified that the Security Office of EDSA-Taft Center is only 15 meters away from the Celeste's stall. Remot declared that Gates 1 to 6 of the Center close for the evening at 10:00 P.M.  Gate No. 7 is left open as exit gate of the building tenants and their helpers.  On September 20, 1996, at about 10:00 P.M., he was near the security office and saw appellant in his stall.  At about 10:15 P.M. Celeste went up to the sleeping quarters of the stall.  Two hours later, he saw Celeste under the stall.  He did not see Celeste go in or out of Gate 7.  Remot also testified that he reported for work on September 21, 1996 at 8:00 P.M. and saw Celeste in his stall from 8:00 to 10:00 P.M..

Alfredo Reyes Gumilao, a member of the Civilian Volunteers Organization (CVO) of Barangay 104, Zone 11, Pasay City, testified that on September 20, 1996 at 9:00 to 10:00 P.M., he was driving the barangay jeep on his way to the Cuneta Astrodome.  When he passed Protacio Street, near the corner of Taft Avenue, he was informed that a pedicab with a dead man in it was causing traffic.  He approached the pedicab and saw a body slumped face down on the right side towards the sidecar.  He got a flashlight and saw a pool of blood on the pavement near where the head was leaning.  Pablo Castillo, another CVO member, helped him load the person in his jeep as ordered by the police.  They brought the victim to the Pasay City General Hospital where the person was later pronounced dead on arrival.

Appellant was the last witness.  He denied any involvement in the incident.  During cross-examination, he admitted that Suvilla Sing-Along Restaurant was once his customer but he had not been there for sometime.  On September 21, 1996 he was about to cross the street when he was accosted by two police officers. They grabbed him by the neck, forced him to ride in their jeep, and brought him to the Pasay City Police Station where he was immediately placed inside a "baby cell".  During the alleged police line-up, Catalan could not point to him as the person who killed Roy.  It was only after Police Officer Palma went inside and pointed to the accused that Catalan pointed at him.  He denies there was any line-up where Rosemarie Bebing had identified him.

After trial, appellant was found guilty and sentenced thus:

WHEREFORE, finding the evidence sufficient in quantum to convict, the Court hereby finds the accused Felix Celeste GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt, as principal, for the crime of murder defined and penalized under Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code as amended by Republic Act No. 7659 which decrees that this Court impose, as it hereby imposes, the mandatory penalty of death. The accused is likewise ordered to pay the private complainant at least P50,000.00 for the death of Roy Lique, actual expenses in the amount of P26,000.00 and moral/exemplary damages in the amount of P200,000.00.

Considering that the sentence imposed is the penalty of death, let the records of this case be elevated within twenty (20) days but not earlier than fifteen (15) days to the Honorable Supreme Court for automatic review and judgment pursuant to Section 10, Rule 122 of the Revised Rules of Court.

Let mittimus issue immediately after promulgation of this judgment.

SO ORDERED.[2]

Hence, this automatic review, of the trial court's decision, focusing on the errors alleged by appellant:

I

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED OF THE CRIME CHARGED DESPITE THE INSUFFICIENCY OF EVIDENCE TO WARRANT CONVICTION BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT.

II

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN FINDING THAT THERE WAS TREACHERY AND EVIDENT PREMEDITATION IN THE KILLING OF THE VICTIM.

III

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN AWARDING MORAL DAMAGES WITHOUT BASES.

In sum, the issues raised for our resolution are: (1) whether appellant's guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt; (2) whether treachery and evident premeditation qualified the killing into murder; and (3) whether there was sufficient basis to award moral damages.

First, appellant impugns the credibility of eyewitness Angelito Catalan.  He suggests that Catalan's account that appellant blocked the victim's pedicab by holding the steering bar[3] is not only improbable since a person who stands in front of a moving pedicab would have been run over.  Appellant likewise claims that Catalan's declaration that he failed to notice where the pipe-wielder fled after hitting the victim[4] is doubtful.  Finally, Catalan's claim that he was the one who reported the incident to the police is contradicted by the police blotter stating that it was the security guard of the hospital who informed the police about the incident.

For the appellee, the Office of the Solicitor General submits that when the issue is credibility of witnesses, appellate courts should not disturb the findings arrived at by the trial court inasmuch as it is in a better position to assess the deportment and demeanor of witnesses during trial.

The trial court believed Catalan.  Settled is the rule that the trial court's evaluation of the credibility of a witness is accorded great respect by appellate courts, unless the evaluation is tainted with arbitrariness, or the trial court overlooked material facts or circumstances of weight and influence, which if considered, could affect the outcome of the case.[5] Catalan positively identified appellant.  When he witnessed the incident, he was only 6 or 7 meters away. He had no reason to falsely testify against appellant.  When there is no evidence to indicate that the witness against the accused has been actuated by improper motive and absent any compelling reason to conclude otherwise, the testimony given should be accorded full faith and credit.[6] Such testimony if credible and positive is sufficient to support a conviction.[7]

Appellant next contends that his guilt was not sufficiently established.  Even the prosecution evidence showed that he was not the one who delivered the fatal blow, according to him.  He adds that since the prosecution failed to establish that he and the unidentified lead pipe-wielder conspired to kill the victim, his acquittal is in order.

However, the Office of the Solicitor General avers that the prosecution duly proved conspiracy.  Although appellant was not actually seen by Catalan as the person who hit the head of the victim with a lead pipe, he saw Celeste block Roy's pedicab, thus enabling his unidentified companion to hit Roy from behind. Clearly then, appellant's act was indispensable to assure completion of the crime.  It also demonstrated conspiracy between him and his co-accused, according to the Solicitor General.

A conspiracy exists when two or more persons come to an agreement concerning the commission of a felony and decide to commit it.[8] To establish conspiracy, all that is required is that the conspirators had the same purpose and were united in its execution.[9] Although it appears that it was appellant's co-accused who dealt Roy the death blow, we agree that appellant performed real and effective acts to carry out the killing.  When appellant blocked and held the victim's pedicab, it deprived the latter of any means of escape, it also rendered the victim vulnerable to the sudden attack from behind by appellant's unknown confederate.  In conspiracy, it is not necessary to show that all the conspirators actually killed the victim.[10] All the conspirators are liable as co-principals regardless of the extent and character of their participation, because the act of one is the act of all.[11]

Second, appellant argues that the prosecution failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence the qualifying circumstances of treachery and evident premeditation.  He claims that the alleged eyewitness testified only that he saw how the victim was hit with a lead pipe but he did not testify on the events immediately before the killing, therefore, treachery could not be established on the basis of such testimony alone. Nor was evident premeditation established, he said, since the prosecution failed to offer any proof to show how the accused planned and prepared to kill the victim.

Evident premeditation is appreciated where the execution of a criminal act is preceded by cool thought and reflection upon the resolution to carry out the criminal intent.  The requisites of evident premeditation are:  (1) the time when the accused determined to commit the crime; (2) an act manifestly indicating that the accused has clung to his determination; and (3) a sufficient lapse of time between such determination and execution to allow him to reflect upon the circumstances of his act.[12]

The prosecution submits that the above requisites were established by the foregoing circumstances:  (1) appellant mauled and threatened to kill the victim on September 19, 1996; (2) appellant ambushed the victim the next day, showing that he clung to his determination to kill the victim; and (3) there was sufficient time lapse between the threat, and the execution of the plan.[13]

However, Rosemarie Bebing testified that she did not see who actually killed Roy Lique but she knew of only one who made the death threat and that was Mang Felix Celeste.[14] This testimony in our view is at best speculative.  It does not show how and when appellant and the unidentified pipe-wielder planned to kill Roy.  Evident premeditation was, in our view, not sufficiently established.

With respect to the qualifying circumstance of alevosia, its essence is the sudden and unexpected attack by the aggressor on an unsuspecting victim, depriving the latter of any real chance to defend himself, thereby ensuring its commission without risk to the aggressor, and without the slightest provocation on the part of the victim.[15] Treachery is present when the offender employs means, methods, or forms which tend to directly and specially insure the execution of the crime, without risk to himself arising from the defense which the offended party might make.[16] Treachery is never presumed.  Just like the elements of the crime, it must be satisfactorily proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Appellant argues that there is no treachery.  Catalan did not testify on the events immediately preceding the attack.  What he testified to was that he saw appellant, unarmed, standing in front of the victim's pedicab, thus:

Q:
Now you said that there was a third man during that hitting incident?
A:
Yes, sir.
Q:
Where was this third man during that time?
A:
He blocked the pedicab, sir.
Q:
Could you demonstrate to us how the blocking was made by that third man?
A:
The third man was holding the steering bar.[17]

Catalan further said, however, that while appellant blocked and took hold of victim's pedicab, appellant's co-accused appeared at the victim's back, struck him on the back of his head with a length of lead pipe without any warning.

Q:
When the man was hit by the lead pipe, what happened to him?
A:
I saw him fall.
Q:
Fall where?
A:
On his own sidecar, sir.
Q:
How many hits did he receive?
A:
I did not count the number of times he was hit. I only saw one and he fell.
Q:
In what portion of his body was he hit?
A:
On the head.
Q:
What portion of his head?
A:
I did not see, sir.
COURT:
When you demonstrated it while answering, you touched your nape and now you are saying that you did not see?
A:
Somewhere on the nape, sir.
COURT:
When the man fell, what did the man who blocked the steering bar do?
A:
Nothing, sir, he just remained there infront of the pedicab.
COURT:
How about the person who wielded the pipe, what did he do?
A:
I did not see him anymore, he was not there anymore, sir. Perhaps he ran away.[18]

Clearly, the attack was from behind and unexpected, indicating that appellant and his confederate employed means to ensure that appellant could not defend himself nor pose danger to them.  Treachery qualified the killing to murder.  Since there are neither aggravating nor mitigating circumstances, the proper penalty is reclusion perpetua.

The award of P50,000.00 as indemnity ex delicto, without need of further proof other than the commission of the offense, is proper.[19] The award of P26,000.00 in actual damages, supported by the evidence on record, is likewise affirmed.  Absent any aggravating circumstance in the commission of the crime, exemplary damages cannot be awarded.[20] Hence, the award of exemplary damages is deleted.  With respect to moral damages, we find the award of P200,000.00 excessive and thus reduce it to P50,000.00, in line with current jurisprudence.[21]

WHEREFORE, the assailed decision of the Regional Trial Court of Pasay City, Branch 114, in Criminal Case No. 96-9270 is hereby MODIFIED.  Appellant Felix Celeste y Sison is found GUILTY of Murder, qualified by treachery, and his sentence is REDUCED to reclusion perpetua, with the accessory penalties provided by law.  He is likewise ordered to pay the heirs of Roy Lique the sum of P50,000.00 as death indemnity, P26,000.00 as actual damages, and P50,000.00 as moral damages.  Costs de oficio.

SO ORDERED.

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



[1] Rollo, p.20.

[2] Rollo, p. 35.

[3] TSN, October 17, 1996, pp. 7, 8.

[4] TSN, October 17, 1996, p. 10.

[5] People vs. Lacatan, 295 SCRA 203, 210-211 (1998).

[6] People v. Solis, 291 SCRA 529, 539 (1998).

[7] People v. Flores, G.R. No. 116794, June 23, 2000, p. 5.

[8] People v. Juan, et al., G.R. No. 100718-19, January 20, 2000, p. 20.

[9] People vs. Sy, 113 SCRA 207, 214 (1982).

[10] People vs. Umadhay, 293 SCRA 545, 565 (1998).

[11] People v. Go-Od,G.R. No. 134505, May 9, 2000, p. 9.

[12] People vs. Sesbreño, 314 SCRA 87, 114 (1999).

[13] Rollo, p. 33.

[14] Rollo, p. 23.

[15] People vs. Vermudez, 302 SCRA 276, 284 (1999).

[16] People vs. Cortes, 286 SCRA 295, 301 (1998).

[17] TSN, October 17, 1996, p. 8.

[18] Id. at 8-10.

[19] People v. Faco, 314 SCRA 505, 524 (1999).

[20] CIVIL CODE, Art. 2230.

[21] People v. Lumiwan, 295 SCRA 215, 230 (1999).



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