Not a ghost of a chance
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - August 30, 2019 - 12:00am

The case of former Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez is like a ghost from the past for Senator Franklin Drilon, now Senate minority leader of the 18th Congress. Drilon was still the Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary when he first encountered then Mayor Sanchez as the prime suspect in the twin slay of University of the Philippines (UP) students Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez.

The ghost of Sanchez case was brought back to life after the DOJ and the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) announced the Supreme Court (SC) ruling about the new Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) under RepubIic Act (RA) 10592. The High Court ruling on June 25 this year declared RA 10592 has retroactive application to all those convicted after it became a law in 2013.

But out of 11,000 inmates that could qualify under SC ruling on the application of GCTA law, the DOJ and the BuCor both singled out Sanchez – who is serving seven terms of life imprisonment – could be freed from the National Bilibid Prison (NBP) because of this.

Although it was the 16th Congress that approved the GCTA Law during the previous administration, Senators led by Drilon and House leaders of the 18th Congress scrambled to take a second look at this law. Crossing party lines, Senators and Congress called for full-dress investigations on the mysterious turn of events.

Amid all these hullaballoo, President Rodrigo Duterte declared Sanchez release from jail would not come to pass during his watch. That is, at least until June 30, 2020.

Nonetheless, the House justice committee chaired by Leyte Rep. Vicente Veloso has scheduled on Sept. 3 a public hearing on the implementation of the GCTA Law and the aborted release of Sanchez. A former Court of Appeals justice, Veloso announced he would invite DOJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra to this House hearing to explain how the seven life terms of Sanchez could qualify when Article 70 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) states that multiple penalties cannot be served simultaneously. The DOJ and the BuCor reportedly cited the GCTA Law amended Article 70.

Likewise, the Senate committee on justice chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon has also called for a parallel public hearing Sept. 2 on the same case.

On a funny side of this nightmarish story, Drilon chuckled at the thoughts of a “reunion” of sorts between Sen. Gordon and now BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon who would be invited as resource person to this Senate public hearing. In November 2018, President Duterte appointed Faeldon as BuCor chief replacing now Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.

It was Gordon who sent Faeldon to six months of detention in 2018, first at the Senate, and subsequently at the Pasay City jail. Faeldon, who was then Customs commissioner, was cited for contempt of the Senate. Faeldon refused to answer questions on Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s expose on the alleged “tara” or payola system out of smuggled goods that went through the Bureau of Customs and allegedly benefited him and other agency officials.

Yesterday, Lacson dropped another bombshell that at least four convicted Chinese drug lords have been released recently from NBP maximum security. The four Chinese convicts were reportedly transferred to Bureau of Immigration for their summary deportation. It is not clear yet to Lacson if they were freed on the basis of the GCTA law.

Just the other day, Lacson posted this obvious dig at Faeldon in his Tweeter account: “From release of smuggled goods to release of convicts. Has the Bureau of Customs ‘tara system’ migrated to the Bureau of Corrections?”

Levity aside, Drilon shared his bitter recollections of this celebrated crime in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle as our featured topic in our weekly breakfast news forum last Wednesday.

Accompanied by National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents, Drilon recalled having personally seen with his own eyes how a small town mayor in Laguna could have amassed so much wealth and power. When they raided the house of Sanchez in Calauan, Drilon was shown several sacks full of coins that were apparently the mayor’s earnings from the small bets collected from illegal “jueteng” operations in the province. Quoting the explanation to them by Sanchez, these coins were for his supposed gift-giving during wedding receptions. 

 It was in 1995 while he was still DOJ Secretary when Drilon led the state prosecutors in securing the court conviction of Sanchez along with six of his bodyguards for the Sarmenta-Gomez case. They were charged with conspiracy in the commission of these heinous crimes. This means the crime of one is the crime of all. So the seven of them led by Sanchez were sentenced to seven life terms of imprisonment. One life term sentence is equivalent to 40 years in jail.

Drilon cited the Sanchez case as one of the first applications of the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program (WPP). This was why, Drilon explained, they were able to get the court’s verdict of guilty beyond reasonable doubt based on the testimony of two of the bodyguards of Sanchez who turned state witnesses against the ex-mayor. Drilon vigorously dismissed the continuing avowals by the ex-mayor on the latter’s self-proclaimed innocence and that he was only the supposed “fall guy” of this rape-slay of Sarmenta.

Deemed the least guilty of the original nine accused under the WPP, the two were accepted as state witnesses. The two were, namely, Aurelio Centeno and Vicencio Malabanan. The life term sentence of the two was reduced for their testimonies as mitigating circumstances.  

From hindsight, Drilon believes the authors and sponsors of the GCTA Law during the 16th Congress meant well in pursuit of “reformative” justice in the country’s penal system. Many of the past as well as present members of the Senate, Drilon pointed out, are against the restoration of the “Death Penalty” Law.

Like him, Drilon quoted Sen. Bato dela Rosa, as in favor of giving “second chance” for reformed convicts. But for Drilon, there is not a ghost of chance for Sanchez to redeem self for the continuing crimes of the ex-mayor inside NBP.

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