The poster boy
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - August 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Harriet O. Demetriou, Pasig Regional Trial Court Judge (later Sandiganbayan Justice and COMELEC Chair) referenced the case she had just decided as “a plot seemingly hatched in hell”. Today, more than 26 years after that fateful day in June 1993, the main protagonist/antagonist Antonio Sanchez continues to endure his special place in the nation’s hell. 

Cases like these best illustrate why criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the people. If you’ve ever wondered why that complaint you filed against the scoundrel who inveigled you to “loan” your nest egg to a Ponzi scheme ends up entitled People of the Philippines vs. Scoundrel de la Cruz, then this is why. When crimes are committed, it is not just the private victim offended. It is, equally, an outrage that affects the security, peace of mind and wellbeing of  all the people.

R.A. 10592 was a recognition by policymakers of the reformative philosophy behind our penal system. Good conduct time allowances (GCTA) was forged on the anvil of our best intentions. According to the Department of Justice Manual on the R.A., GCTA is a reward for good conduct and exemplary behavior. It is also intended as an instrument to declog our jail populations.

But why? Why is this mercy available even to the most guilty? In the case of Sanchez, he was adjudged seven life sentences for the Sarmenta - Gomez kidnapping, rape and murders and two life sentences for the Penalosa murders of father and son. Had he nine lives like a cat, he would have been doomed to live them all out behind bars. 

However, Article 70 of the Revised Penal Code states that if the culprit is to serve two or more penalties, those penalties shall be served successively with total service not to exceed 40 years. Hence, with nine life sentences, and each life sentence treated as a 30-year penalty under the law, the starting point for computation is 9 multiplied by 30, i.e. 270 years.

Sanchez is already availing of this leniency to go from 270 years down to 40. The GCTA is to be charged against this 40-year maximum period and not against the actual 270 years.

The second issue is whether the GCTA should be indiscriminately given. This question is directly triggered by the announcement of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) that Sanchez has already served 49 years in prison, counting his GCTA. Given that the BuCor has already eagerly computed his eligibility, it stands to reason that they’ve preliminarily dismissed all challenges to the same. 

These shall be the battlefronts of the coming days. There is language in R.A. 10592 that seems to provide a resolution: “recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees and persons charged with heinous crimes are excluded from the coverage of this act”.Some argue that this “disqualification” should allay fears. Malacanang itself has adopted this view in its latest release. Antonio Sanchez (1) committed heinous crimes and, based on the scuttlebutt from BuCor, his alleged infractions re: shabu, kubol with TV, airconditioning and cellphones, etc. make him a (2) recidivist and a (3 habitual delinquent. He is also an (4) escapee when you consider that he has been seen in his own residence in Calauan as recently as two months ago. 

There’s the rub. But this passage appears only in a different section of R.A. 10592. It’s the section on subtracting time spent in preventive detention from your total sentence. Hence, when it comes to GCTA, there is no such special disqualification. This is why Senators are already proposing amendatory clarifications. We expect that any such insistence of Sanchez to avail of the benefit of the law would revolve around this interpretation.  

Antonio Sanchez was represented by competent counsel. His defense lawyer was noted defense attorney and now Presidential spokesman and legal counsel Salvador Panelo. Atty. Panelo continues to defend Sanchez’s entitlement to the GCTA if qualified. He sees it, correctly, as a rule of law situation and he is happy for his former client. 

This has also proved to be Senator and former BuCor Chief Ronald Bato de la Rosa’s turning point. The big man has clearly developed a healthier respect for the Rule of Law. No more “shit happens” or “blind defense of tokhang”. Concede a second chance to  Sanchez if determined by law to be entitled to the GCTA. 

Yet if Secretary Panelo and Senator de la Rosa are staunch in their charity for this man, there is vehement outrage in the hearts and minds of many. The Sarmenta, Gomez and Penalosa families may have suffered most. But it is clear from the righteous indignation that the People of the Philippines have also agonized and they do not intend to go quietly. Millions of voices are rising up to speak for his victims.

Getting no respect. The hysteria has permeated even the hearings of unrelated legislation. At the Senate ROTC bill hearings, NUSP president Raoul Manuel irreverently roasted Senator Bato for his “second chance for Sanchez” in a prepared statement against the ROTC proposal.

Even in a house intended as repository of the democratic values of free speech and petitioning government for redress of grievances, the cheek exhibited by Manuel was unprecedented. But it was unfortunate because Senator Bato almost burst a vein with his reaction. We saw the way he scolded the guest. This from a person so traumatized to tears by his treatment at the hands of Senators that he made a promise to always treat resource persons with respect. 

To bring up his Sanchez side may have not been germane to the topic. But it was actually Senator Bato’s outburst that interrupted the deliberation on the proposal. This is one of those situations where the caution against being too onion skinned is fitting. Come on, Senator. The rule is to always be cool.

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