SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2019 - 12:00am

There are at least four reasons why the outrage and agitation over the release/non release of rape and murder convict Antonio Sanchez continues to mount. And none of them have to do with having to fix his face. 

First, Sanchez has been a key fixture in the landscape of crime and punishment for over a quarter of a century. The death penalty, law of the land during the Marcos Martial Law regime, was abolished by the 1987 Constitution. It was historic for the Philippines as the 1st country in Asia to repeal it for all crimes. In a region with a trend toward harsher justice and the increased application of capital punishment, that decision truly set us apart and reinforced the country’s standing in the eyes of the world as a last bastion of respect for human rights. 

Notwithstanding this strong negative bias of the people, the death penalty was restored by Congress in 1993. The most compelling reason? Mr. Sanchez. His heinous crimes, committed with a higher degree of depravity as he was an elected public official, sparked Congress and new President Fidel V. Ramos to revisit the contentious debate and stake out a tougher position. FVR was already the strongest advocate of its re-imposition while he was Secretary of National Defense to President Corazon C. Aquino. For him, the punishment was a critical tool in the anti-insurgency campaign, to punish and deter rebellion, sedition and insurrection. At the time, countless right wing coup attempts were being suffered by President Aquino. 

The Congressional resolve was further fortified by the murder/mutilation of Elsa Castillo that same year. These 1993 tragedies were the final straw in a series of shocking events that started in 1991 when the Hultman, Maguan and Vizconde murders pummeled the national sense of security and shattered societal peace. The mounting tide of criminality and lawlessness severely compromised our faith in the criminal justice system. 

That law, RA 7659, was repealed in 2006. Today, we are considering its reimposition. Mr. Sanchez continues to be a magnet that attracts attention to the death penalty debate.

Second, you have the public statements/misstatements of Secretaries Menardo Guevarra, and Salvador Panelo, Bureau of Corrections Director Nicanor Faeldon and Senator Ronald Bato de la Rosa. These are all high profile officials, men of the President’s bosom confidence. Can you blame the nation for feeling steamrolled by their seemingly calibrated public announcements in defense of Sanchez’s impending release? Even Secretary Teddyboy Locsin called it an attempt to railroad the release and a fait accompli.

Third is the glaring legal issue. RA 10592 has two distinct portions: Sec. 1 on Credit for preventive imprisonment (CPI) and Sec. 3 on Good Conduct Time Allowances (GCTA). Somewhere in there, the lawmakers placed the exception“recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees and persons charged with heinous crimes are excluded from the coverage of this Act”. For some inexplicable reason – it may even have been an oversight – this exception appears only in the section on CPI. We now learn that, in fact, the original House Bill dealt only with CPI. The entirely separate section on GCTA was introduced later as part of the Senate’s amendments.

Accordingly, the implication is that this class of convicts, while excluded from the benefits of the CPI, are nonetheless free to avail of GCTA. This is where the BuCor and DOJ may have gotten all tripped up allowing for the possible release of Sanchez even if guilty of a heinous crime. In fact, 1,914 heinous crime convicts have already been released on GCTA. Also, three of the convicts in the infamous Chiong sisters rape and murder case in Cebu have been given signed release orders. How now will they explain away this dilemma or undo what was wrongly done?

Fourth, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has ordered that Sanchez shall not be released. What is the Presidential basis? There was a previous determination by the agency tasked by law, BuCor which is part of DOJ. And now, we are hearing that a release order had already been signed and Sanchez was good to go.

Arguably thus, applying the presumption of regularity to the actions of the agencies, proper procedure was observed in the consideration of the Sanchez application for GCTA. What then would excuse the action of the President in ordering that Sanchez is not to be released despite procedure having been presumably followed? Any such reversal of decisions must have been informed by data and information from due investigation. Otherwise, it becomes another case of rule by decree. 

Of course, the great majority welcome the President’s decision which is politically astute. But is it legally astute and consistent with the primacy of the rule of law? Ironically, the dura lex sed lex argument is at the heart of the pronouncements of Guevarra, Panelo, De la Rosa and Faeldon.

In the debates against the reimposition of the death penalty, the most cogent argument is that certainty of punishment works better as a deterrent to crime. In the investigation to be conducted by the Senate on Monday, we will find out just how this certainty operates in the Philippines given the “porousness” of our correctional system. Hopefully, we are given clarity on the proper application of RA 10592. What we should do about the 1,914 heinous crime inmates that were allowed to avail of GCTA and whether or not Sanchez is entitled to the same? We look forward to an interesting hearing of the committee on justice and human rights under Senator Richard Gordon.

The GCTA law, if implemented properly, stands to accomplish its policy goals. One way or another, Antonio Sanchez has again been instrumental in attracting attention to the crafting and understanding of landmark, remedial legislation.

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