Editorial: Justice for lawyers

POLICE and justice department investigators have yet to identify a suspect and find the motive behind the murder of lawyer and Ronda Vice Mayor Jonnah John Ungab last Monday.

In public discussions, however, especially on social media, a common view is that his decision to represent some targets of the campaign against illegal drugs was what doomed him. The fact that the attack took place shortly after he appeared in court with self-confessed drug lord Rolando “Kerwin” Espinosa Jr. seems to give this view some weight.

Yet this view also reminds us of the need to understand better the role lawyers play in our justice system and the need to appreciate certain principles, like presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the right to counsel. It is a flawed system, to be sure, and justice is often served late. Yet it remains a far superior system than street justice, which doesn’t deserve to be called “justice” at all.

Whatever his reasons, Atty. Ungab did not shy away from controversial clients. Apart from Espinosa, he also defended the late Albuera, Leyte Mayor Ronaldo Espinosa Sr. (killed in detention in November 2016), alleged drug lord Alvaro “Barok” Alvaro (detained since June 2016), and bar owner Kenneth Dong (tagged as an alleged middleman in a P6.4-billion shabu smuggling case since August 2017). That Ungab was also an elected official raises a question: should public servants take on criminal cases where they, in effect, go up against the government they are supposed to serve? Can those two positions be reconciled?

That doesn’t change the fact that Atty. Ungab shouldn’t have died the way he did.

Given the timing, the ambush brought to mind the case of another Cebuano lawyer who was in the midst of some high-profile criminal cases when he was killed. A day before the attack was the fourth anniversary of the ambush on lawyer Noel Archival, who died along with his aide and driver while they were on their way back to Cebu City from a court hearing. Less than two months after that, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) went to court against five police officers from the Highway Patrol Group.

That case remains pending. The last we heard of it was that nearly a year after the case was filed, the three officers who remained accused (the other two had been cleared, for lack of evidence) had yet to be arrested.

It would be the worst cruelty for individuals to be denied justice, when they devoted the best years of their life in pursuit of it.
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