By FORMER SENATOR ATTY. JOEY D. LINA
It may not send chills down the spine of callous and desensitized rogue cops, but last Thursday’s conviction of three policemen for the murder of 17-year-old student Kian delos Santos should still be a stern warning against scalawags who prey on hapless victims and mock police efforts to regain and nurture the trust of the citizenry.
The decision rendered by Caloocan City Regional Trial Court Branch 125 Judge Roldolfo Azucena Jr. finding PO3 Arnel Oares, PO1 Jeremias Pereda, and PO1 Jerwin Cruz guilty of murder can also be a breath of fresh air for those exasperated with what they perceive is a corrupt and slowpoke criminal justice system that often allows criminals to easily get away with heinous deeds.
The court ruling could even be viewed as a triumph, albeit rare, of the criminal justice system, considering that a guilty verdict was handed down in just a little over a year after the August 16, 2017, killing of Kian that triggered an outcry from both critics and supporters of the administration on the war against illegal drugs.
So horrific was Kian’s killing that it even led Ateneo de Davao University President Fr. Joel Tabora, a staunch supporter of President Duterte’s many programs, to then write in his blog: “When a life is taken through abominable police action that frames an innocent person as a criminal and shoots him to increase the statistics of ‘progress’ in the war against drugs, this is a crime that cries to the heavens for justice.”
With Judge Azucena’s ruling, Kian’s grieving relatives and all others crying out for justice have attained what they have sought. And it is indeed reassuring that Malacañang has allayed some concerns of a presidential pardon for the new convicts. “This is a murder, there is intention to kill. The President will never tolerate that,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
Many see the outcome of the case as a testament to a level of efficiency which ought to characterize all aspects of the criminal justice system — reporting the crime, gathering evidence, identifying perpetrators through a no-nonsense investigation that also elicits valuable information from the community, arresting and prosecuting suspects, and conducting swift and fair trial in court until justice is served and the guilty are sentenced to languish in jail.
The 32-page court decision, which makes extensive use of classic and timeless doctrines inscribed in past Supreme Court rulings, also serves as a strong reminder of what ought to guide police officers. “Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement. The public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life,” is foremost among the cited SC doctrines. It was clearly laid out in a June 25, 2012, decision penned by SC Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta in People vs. Yapyuco, G.R. Nos. 120744-46.
The RTC ruling also cited what the SC said in a decision penned by Justice Adolfo Azcuna in People vs. Baxinela, G.R. No. 149652, promulgated on March 24, 2006: “The Court commiserates with our policemen who regularly thrust their lives in zones of danger in order to maintain peace and order and acknowledges the apprehensions faced by their families whenever they go on duty. But the use of unnecessary force or wanton violence is not justified when the fulfillment of their duty as law enforcers can be effected otherwise. A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society.”
Another SC doctrine, in People vs. Ulep (G.R No. 132547 promulgated on Sept. 20, 2000), was also cited: The right to kill an offender is not absolute… The law does not clothe police officers with authority to arbitrarily judge the necessity to kill.”
Many believe the ruling of Judge Azucena could be a turning point in current efforts to fight the sense of impunity and depravity afflicting some policemen who have no qualms tossing aside their sworn commitment to serve and protect, and who inflict significant damage to the government’s signature drive against the drug menace.
There’s no doubt that the war against illegal drugs must be fought relentlessly. But the menacing drug problem involving rogue lawmen clearly shows an aberration in the system and the need for far-reaching reforms. While rogue cops constitute a very small minority of the PNP, they have the capacity to exacerbate the people’s distrust in law enforcement and even subvert our confidence in the criminal justice system.
There’s got to be a better way.
“If the war on drugs is fought out of respect for human life, it must be guided by respect for human life,” Fr. Tabora wrote in 2016, shortly after Kian’s murder. “Where security and police forces are already flawed because of their vulnerability to corruption and disrespect for human life, even more care must be taken to lead them on the straight path, to direct them to destroy the enemy, and not the victims of the enemy. Certainly, the President must rally his forces to win the war and to legitimately defend their lives against the onslaughts of the enemy. At the same time, he must be keen not to encourage the dark culture of death against which he is fighting his war in the first place.
Summary executions, whether by lawmen or lawless elements, are heinous crimes. A government bent on curbing criminality ought to exert the same zealousness utilized against drug personalities in going after those responsible for summary killings and in seeking justice for victims. Otherwise, pronouncements on adherence to rule of law and due process will be merely lip service, and more Kians are doomed to die.
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