Punishing masterminds

The real test of a criminal justice system’s success in murder cases is its ability to identify, and punish, the masterminds and their accomplices.

In this country, it seems relatively easy to catch and convict the hired shooters or gunmen in killings, some of whom are caught red-handed. But if the government really wants to set an example against the culture of impunity that pervades the country, the masterminds must not go unpunished.

Usually, when the contract killers are caught, they are announced with much fanfare and are presented before the media. But the police and judicial authorities must be able to lift the veil on the extent of the links behind the killers.

Who ordered the killing, and why were the victims killed? These questions must also be answered.

Convicting the shooter or the killer is an important first step, but it is not enough. It is vital for the judicial system to send a strong signal that the state has the ability to put to jail the masterminds behind the killings, who are usually the moneyed and powerful in society.

At times, it is puzzling why murder cases take too long to solve even if there is a compelling evidence against the suspects.

The Ampatuan brothers, Datu Andal Jr. and Zaldy, were found guilty of murdering 57 people after their trial dragged on for 10 years, with the appeals process likely to be another protracted court battle.

In the case of Marlene Esperat, the courageous journalist who was murdered in 2005 after uncovering the P728-million fertilizer scam in the Department of Agriculture, the alleged masterminds have escaped prosecution altogether, even if Esperat’s killers (who identified said masterminds) have already been jailed.

Esperat’s murder happened 15 years ago, yet up to this day none of those she had implicated in the fertilizer scam, whom the Senate had also implicated in a separate investigation, were put behind bars.

This is why we commend the recent Court of Appeals (CA) decision on reviving the trial of former Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes over the murder of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerry Ortega, reversing the ruling of retired Justice Normandie Pizarro, who freed Reyes in January 2018, supposedly because there was no other statement aside from the gunman that implicated Reyes.

The decision reversing the Pizarro ruling was issued by the CA’s Special Former 11th Division, acting on an appeal filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG). It was written by Associate Justice Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob, who had also dissented to the Pizarro ruling in 2018.

Jacob’s decision basically says the CA cannot judge Reyes’s guilt and matters either proving or dispelling it are “best threshed out in a full-blown trial.”

Ortega’s murder will be nine years old on January 11. Previous testimonies of his contract killers pointed to Reyes, who allegedly ordered the hit on Ortega because of the latter’s broadcasts exposing the former governor’s plunder of Palawan’s shares of the Malampaya gas project’s profits.

We leave it up to the court to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. But again, there is simply no logical reason to exclude the alleged masterminds from murder cases, filing or approving only the criminal cases against the contract killers. That would truly be a travesty of justice.

What our country needs is the full prosecution of murder cases—the prosecution of both perpetrators and masterminds—that would lead ultimately to the conviction and sentencing of the guilty.

The reason why people say life is so cheap in the Philippines is because we have made murder-for-hires so conveniently possible for masterminds to escape culpability.

Lots of times, even when the hit men, lookouts, go-betweens and accomplices have been caught, or have surrendered and confessed, the masterminds remain scot-free.

What does that say about our justice system? That the best way to get away with murder is to pay someone else to do it?

Image credits: Jimbo Albano


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