Appellate court clears fugitive senator of criminal raps

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Thursday, February 3, 2011


MANILA -- The Court of Appeals (CA) dismissed Thursday the criminal information for murder filed against fugitive Senator Panfilo Lacson in connection with the Dacer-Corbito double murder case.

Lacson was accused of masterminding the killing of publicist Salvador "Bubby" Dacer and his driver Emmanuel Corbito in November 2000 based on allegations of former policeman Cesar Mancao II.

Mancao, who was one of Lacson's former deputies in the defunct Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF), said he overheard the senator giving orders to another former police officer, Michael Ray Aquino, to carry out the plot to kill Dacer.

Lacson, a former chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP), disappeared from public view since January last year before a Manila court issued an arrest warrant against him.

Time to surface

Alex Avisado, legal counsel of Lacson, told his client Thursday that it is time to surface. "Sir, you can come out any time and we'll welcome you back."

He added the CA decision to clear Lacson left him and the rest of the Lacson camp humbled and grateful.

Senator Gregorio Honasan II, Lacson's classmate at the Philippine Military Academy, called the decision a triumph of due process.

Lacson declared last year that he would not let himself be arrested for a crime he did not commit.

He and his lawyers insisted that the Department of Justice (DOJ) should review the case in light of testimonies, saying he never ordered the killing of Dacer.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada, son of former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada, whom Lacson accused as the mastermind in the Dacer-Corbito killings, had little to say about the development.

The only response coming from Estrada was "good for him."

Aquino's reaction

In Malacañang, President Benigno Aquino III reserved his comment on the decision of the CA over Lacson's case.

Aquino said he has not read the CA's decision and would rather not comment on something "in a very blind manner."

"Sorry, just had too many meetings today (Thursday). I've been running late actually. Been going one into the other," he said when sought for comment on CA's move to absolve Lacson in the Dacer-Corbito murders.

While he refused to comment, he reiterated that Lacson could expect fair trial in the Aquino administration.

"My appeal to him has always been that we will guarantee him a fair trial and will protect him of all of his rights," the President said.

Petition granted

In an 80-page decision penned by Associate Justice Ramon Bato Jr., the CA's Special Sixth Division granted the petition filed by Lacson seeking to nullify the February 4, 2010 and July 23, 2010 orders of Judge Thelma Bunyi-Medina of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 18, finding judicial probable cause for the issuance of a warrant of arrest against him.

Concurring with Bato are Associate Justices Juan Enriquez Jr. and Isaias Dicdican, who replaced Justice Florito Macalino as third member of the division after the latter inhibited during the raffle of the case.

There being no probable cause to legally justify the filing of two separate information for murder against Lacson, and consistent with his constitutional right to be presumed innocent and in consonance with existing jurisprudence, the CA ruled that the senator "should be relieved from the pain and agony of trial."

The CA said Mancao is "not a credible and trustworthy witness," having the propensity to contradict himself on material points even under oath, as manifested in his statements denying any knowledge or information on the existence of the so-called "special operations" of the PAOCTF, referring to the liquidation of Dacer and other individuals.

"Inconsistencies and material contradiction affect the credibility of Cezar Mancao and the veracity of his statements. Under the circumstances, with the above cited conflicting statements or serious discrepancy on material fact, the RTC Judge should have denied the issuance of a warrant of arrest and dismissed the case against petitioner for lack of probable cause," the court ruled.

It cited Mancao's counter affidavit dated June 29, 2001 wherein he denied meeting Aquino and personally inquiring about the "special operations," which it then compared with Mancao's February 13, 2009 affidavit when he declared that it was Aquino who informed him about the special operations, which had supposedly been approved and cleared by Lacson and by Malacañang itself.

"There are facts and circumstances admitted by Mancao showing beyond a penumbra of doubt that extraneous factors or other persons may have influenced him in the preparation of his February 2009 affidavit, thereby diluting the veracity and trustworthiness of his statements implicating petitioner as a co-conspirator in the Dacer-Corbito murders," the CA said.

It further gave merit to the argument of Lacson in his counter-affidavit, which pointed out that Mancao's admission in his sworn statement subscribed before a consul on February 14, 2009 that "it was prepared by the panel, we read the draft, it was made more than 24 hours," referring to the DOJ panel of then Secretary Raul Gonzalez, Undersecretary Ernesto Pineda, Undersecretary Oscar Calderon, a lady prosecutor, and NBI regional director Ricardo Diaz.

When asked whether the panel of prosecutors gave inputs in the preparation of the affidavit, Mancao answered: "Guidance, Sir."

Furthermore, Mancao's allegation that the Dacer children's allegations that Lacson orchestrated the killing because their father opposed his appointment as PNP chief, is "nothing but an inference or conjecture not supported by substantial evidence on record."

"Viewed in its proper perspective, considering the facts and circumstances..., there is no probable cause that could legally justify the filing of two separate information for murder and the issuance of warrant of arrest against petitioner," the court held.

Earlier, Lacson asked the DOJ and the Manila court to order a reinvestigation of the case, alleging that prosecutors and the Arroyo government only wanted to persecute him for being a vocal critic of the previous administration.

Lacson is political ally of President Aquino.

Sought for reaction, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said she reserves her comment on the matter until she has read the decision of the CA in full. (JCV/Jonathan de Santos/Jill Beltran/Sunnex)

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