MANILA–The Court of Appeals (CA) has reversed the ruling of Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) and acquits the alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles on the serious illegal detention charges filed against her by whistle-blower Benhur Luy.
In a 35-page decision dated May 5 but was released to media on Monday, penned by Associate Justice Normandie Pizzaro and concurred by Associate Justices Samuel Gaerlan and Jhosep Lopez, the CA’s 12th Division granted the appeal of Napoles to reverse the ruling of Judge Elmo Alameda of Makati RTC branch 150 ruling on April 2015 and ordered Napoles’ immediate release from detention.
“The appeal is granted. The assailed disposition of the Regional Trial Court, National Capital Region, Branch 150, Makati City, is hereby reversed and set aside. The accused-appellant Janet Lim Napoles is acquitted based on reasonable doubt. She is ordered to be immediately released from detention, unless she is confined for any lawful cause,” the decision stated.
However, Napoles would remain in detention because she is also facing plunder charges in connection with the alleged pork barrel scam implicating some lawmakers and other government officials.
Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje Tang said that commitment orders against Napoles stand because they were issued in connection with the cases pending before the SB, these orders constitute the legal bases for her continued detention.
In acquitting Napoles, the appellate court said it finds the evidence presented by the prosecution “grossly insufficient to sustain a conviction” and that the crime was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.
“The essential element of serious illegal detention is that the victim was restrained or deprived of his liberty. Thus, the prosecution must show actual confinement or restriction of his person. There is no serious illegal detention where the fact of detention was not clearly established,” the CA said.
It said that in the instant case, it finds the prosecution’s narration inadequate to establish actual confinement or rushing adding that the trial court in “rushing to convict the accused-appellant carelessly overlooked significant facts” which it stressed would have normally engendered doubts as to the credibility of the prosecution’s evidence.
The appellate court said among these “significant facts” that were overlooked by the RTC were the fact that there was no proof that Luy was forced or involuntarily brought and held against his will in Bahay Ni San Jose in Magallanes Village, Makati, adding that the evidence showed he sought spiritual retreat there.
It also cited the testimonies of defense witnesses, Fr. Peter Lavin and Monsignor Josefino Ramirez, that Luy was neither belligerent now showed any actions to indicate he was coerced or forced to undergo spiritual retreat while inside the facility, adding he even attended masses every night he was there.
The CA also showed Luy in the entire duration of his alleged confinement never attempted to escape nor tell anyone of his situation nor seek assistance from law enforcers and even bystanders on different occasions when he went out of Bahay Ni San Jose.
It added that the prosecution also failed to present evidence that Luy was physically prevented from leaving the retreat house.
“To our mind, it is completely baffling and unexplainable how a man who alleges illegal detention had no sense of urgency to escape or seek help, at least during the latter part of his alleged detention, despite the grave offense committed against him. Such consistent behavior negates the claim that he was forcibly taken and confined by accused-appellant,” the CA said.
The appellate court also questioned Luy’s conduct during his rescue by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), adding that based on the testimonies of the security personnel of Pacific Plaza, he violently resisted rescue and even insisted that Reynaldo “Jojo” Lim-Napoles’ brother and co-accused in the case — did not do anything illegal or criminal against him.
“The prosecution failed to satisfactorily explain the resistance of Luy to the rescue operation, which to our mind negates the claim of serious illegal detention,” the CA said, adding that it finds Luy’s claim that he thought the NBI agents were out to kill him “flimsy and too convenient to warrant appreciation” since the rescuers were accompanied by his brother, Arthur.
Aside from this, the appellate court explained that it is also necessary in serious illegal detention cases that there must be indubitable proof that such deprivation of liberty was the actual intent of the accused but added that Luy never saw Napoles for the entire three months of his stay at the retreat house.
The prosecution, the CA said, only established is that Luy had a disagreement with Napoles on December 19, 2012 that ended with the latter cursing him and threatening to put him in jail.
But the CA said this was insufficient to manifest actual intent to forcefully deprive him of liberty since it is vague and open to different meaning or interpretation.
Lastly, the appellate court said the prosecution failed to present proof to establish that Napoles conspired with her brother to deprive Luy of his liberty, adding that the RTC’s ruling on this matter relied on conjectures insufficient to satisfy the burden of proving conspiracy beyond reasonable doubt.
“In sum, in the recesses of our mind and conscience, the evident conclusion is that the quantum of evidence required in this case has not been met. We hold that the evidence against the accused-appellant is not sufficient to establish her participation or culpability in the alleged criminal conspiracy. The prosecution has not discharged its burden of proof in establishing the commission of the crime charged and in identifying the accused-appellant as the malefactor responsible for it,’ the CA said.
The CA said that while the case against Napoles’ brother was archived since he disappeared even before the RTC starts the trial of the case, any further proceedings against him using the same factual circumstances may be rendered moot and academic by its decision.
Luy, who was employed by Napoles’ JLN Group of Companies, had testified the latter detained him from December 2012 to March 2013 to prevent him from revealing to authorities how she used bogus non-government organizations to get billions of pesos of pork-barrel funds from dozens of lawmakers, for fake projects.
It will be recalled that two months ago, Solicitor General Jose Calida filed with the CA a manifestation recommending Napoles’ acquittal on the case.
Napoles appealed the lower court’s decision to the Court of Appeals. Since this is a People of the Philippines case, the Solicitor General was ordered to respond.
“The OSG is the defender of the Republic and at the same time the tribune of the people. I am a servant of the law and I took an oath to uphold the rule of law, adding that the personalities involved in the case is immaterial to the decision of his office to comment and file the pleading before the appellate court,” Calida noted.
The manifestation submitted to the CA dated January 11, 2017 was signed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, and Assistant Solicitors General Henry Angeles and Armand Morales.
The OSG said in its manifestation that it reviewed Napoles’ reply brief dated Sept. 20, 2016, wherein appellant Napoles said the “element of deprivation of liberty is absent and wanting in this case”.
Based on such review of the evidence presented by prosecution and defense, the OSG said, “the evidence presented does not support beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant commmitted crime of serious illegal detention.”
The OSG also noted that the conduct and behavior of Luy during the time he was supposedly being detained against his will did not bear out his allegations of coercion and restriction.
“Indeed, the conduct and behavior of Benhur Luy during the period of his alleged detention belie the fact that he was detained or deprived of his liberty, contrary to the findings of the trial court in its April 14, 2015 decision,” OSG said.
Napoles is now detained at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City.