In a Decision dated 17 September 2014, but received only recently, the Supreme Court resolved two petitions connected with the death of Ruby Rose Barrameda. Both petitions - one filed by accused Manuel J. Jimenez, Jr. (G.R. No. 209195), and another filed by People of the Philippines (G.R. No. 209215) - were decided in favor of the Prosecution.
I. Ruling on the first petition, the Supreme Court upheld the Decision of the Court of Appeals, which held that RTC-Malabon Branch 170 Judge ZALDY B. DOCENA did not act with grave abuse of discretion when he ordered the discharge of MANUEL A. MONTERO as a state witness.
It may be remembered that, in 2009, Montero, a former employee of BSJ Company owned by the Jimenezes, executed sworn statements confessing his participation in the killing of Ruby Rose Barrameda, and naming Manuel J. Jimenez, Jr. (JIMENEZ), Lope Jimenez, Lennard A. Descalso alias "Spyke", Robert Ponce alias "Obet", and Eric Fernandez as his co-conspirators. His statements provided the details on where the alleged steel casing containing the body of Ruby Rose was dumped, and led to the recovery of her cadaver, still encased in a drum and stern casing, near or practically at the place that Montero pointed to.
Initially, the RTC's Acting Presiding Judge Hector B. Almeyda denied the motions to discharge Montero as state witness filed by both Montero and the People of the Philippines, on the supposed grounds that the prosecution failed to clearly show that Montero was not the most guilty or, at best, the least guilty among the accused, and that his statements were not corroborated by the other evidence on record. Disagreeing from such finding, then newly appointed regular judge of the RTC, Judge Docena, reconsidered and reversed Judge Almeyda's order. Thereafter, JIMENEZ assailed Judge Docena's ruling, first, before the Court of Appeals and, thereafter, before the Supreme Court.
In agreeing with the Court of Appeals, and thereby upholding the action of Judge Docena, the Supreme Court expressly found that all the requisites under Section 17, Rule 119 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure have been complied with, including, among others, that:
(1) there is absolute necessity for the testimony of Montero, considering that “not one of the accused-conspirators, except Montero, was willing to testify on the alleged murder of Ruby Rose and their participation in her killing”; hence, “[h]e alone is available to provide direct evidence of the crime”;
(2) Montero's testimony can be substantially corroborated, considering that all that is required, for purposes of the motion to discharge, is "that the testimony of the accused sought to be discharged be substantially corroborated in its material points, not on all points." The Court found that the corroborated statements of Montero “are far more material than the inconsistencies pointed out by JIMENEZ,” which are “matters that should properly be dealt with during the trial proper.”
(3) Montero is not the most guilty. The Supreme Court clarified that “a state witness does not need to be found to be the least guilty”, only that “he or she should not ... 'appear to be the most guilty'.” It also clarified that it is not correct to state that the principal by inducement in a conspiracy is automatically: more guilty than the principal by direct participation, or vice versa; what are controlling are the specific acts of the accused in relation to the crime committed.
In the case of Montero, the Supreme Court found. that “while [he] was part of the planning, preparation and execution stage as most of his co-accused hd been, he had no direct participation in the actual killing of Ruby Rose,” and that his "participation was limited to providing the steel box where the drum containing the victim's body was placed, welding the steel box to seal the cadaver inside, operating the skip or tug boat, and, together with co-accused, dropping the steel box containing the cadaver into the sea."
According to the Supreme Court, “[t]o the prosecution belongs the control of its case and this Court cannot dictate on its choice in the discharge of a state witness, save only where the legal requirements have not been complied with." In the present case, the Court found that the requisites have been complied with and that "[t]he discharge of Montero as a state witness was procedurally sound." It further explained that "[t]he prosecution's right to prosecute gives it a wide range of discretion – the discretion of whether, what and whom to charge, the exercise of which depends on a smorgasbord of factors which are best appreciated by prosecutors.”
II. Ruling on the second petition, the Supreme Court found the People's contentions meritorious and modified the Court of Appeals' amended decision, insofar as the latter court "held that while the case does not call for mandatory inhibition, it should still be raffled to another sala for trial on the merits to avoid any claim of bias
The Supreme Court noted that the Court of Appeals “did not provide factual or legal support when it ordered the inhibition of Judge Docena” and, furthermore, it “did not find JIMENEZ'[s] arguments sufficiently persuasive.” It explained that “inhibition must be for just and valid causes. The mere imputation of bias or partiality is ikewise not enough ground for fjudges'] inhibition, especially when the charge is without basis.” It went to reiterate the “well-established” rule “that inhibition is not allowed at every instance that a schoolmate or classmate appears before the judge as counsel for one of the parties. A judge, too, is not expected to automatically inhibit himself from acting in a case involving a member of his fraternity, such as JIMENEZ in the present case.”
In the present case, the Supreme Court found that JIMENEZ's allegation of bias and prejudice is negated by the Court of Appeals' finding in its amended decision, affirmed by the Supreme Court, that Judge Docena did not gravely abuse his discretion in granting the motion to discharge.