Court division backs out of Estrada pork case
MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The 5th division of the Sandiganbayan wants to back out of the plunder and graft case involving Senator Jinggoy Estrada.
In a letter addressed to Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, Fifth Division Chairperson Roland Jurado and his fellow Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ma Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta asked to be inhibited from the cases due to "personal reasons."
The letter did not explain what those personal reasons are. (Sandiganbayan justices, pork barrel cases: Eyeing the SC?)
Estrada is charged with plunder and graft for allegedly pocketing millions worth of lawmakers' discretionary funds through an elaborate scheme known as the pork barrel scam.
Cabotaje-Tang told reporters the anti-graft court deferred decision on the inhibition until next year.
In a statement, Estrada said he was surprised by the development.
The prosecution team has a similar reaction. Justice Undersecretary Jose "JJ" Justiniano, one of two officials deputized by the Ombudsman to help state prosecutors, said he was also "at a loss" by the sudden decision of the magistrates to inhibit at this point in the case.
"I was surprised by the move to inhibit because we even have a scheduled hearing as far as I know," he said.
It will be up to the Ombudsman to decide whether the prosecution team would ask the judges to state their reason for inhibiting, Justiniano said.
A justice usually inhibits before a case is heard if there is a potential conflict of interest, such as when the litigant is a relative or a former officemate.
Outside of those cases, Justiniano said a justice usually voluntarily inhibits if there is a motion filed by a party.
He refused to answer questions on the timing of the move.
In the event of an inhibition, a case would be transferred to another division. This could lead to delays, depending on how much work is at hand for the new division chosen to handle the case.
Jurado, who was appointed in 2003, penned the decisions that acquitted former Justice Secretary Hernando "Nani" Perez for allegedly falsifying his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth, and the ruling that junked the govenment's 60% claim on tycoon Lucio Tan's assets.
He was also part of the special division of 5 that gave the green light to the plea bargain deal of retired Major General Carlos Garcia.
Jurado earlier warned the prosecution panel on the Estrada plunder case against amending the information they filed against the senator or the anti-graft court would be forced to order Estrada's release.
Appointed in 2005, Gesmundo concurred with Jurado and Sandiganbayan 3rd Division Associate Justice Alex Quiroz in dismissing the case against Perez. Meanwhile, Gesmundo penned the ruling convicting former San Vicente, Palawan mayor Vicente Villapando for ghost delivery of cement.
He was also part of the team of magistrates that blocked former National Economic Development Authority director general Romulo Neri from testifying against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo over the NBN-ZTE deal.
When the prosecution sought to amend information in the Estrada case to change "conspiracy" to "connivance," Gesmundo told prosecutors that every word in the information must be precise in a criminal indictment.
Gomez Estoesta, the youngest member of the Sandiganbayan, was appointed in June 24, 204 to fill the vacancy created when Cabotaje-Tang was named presiding justice.
She joined the Office of the Solicitor General in 1991 and was appointed judge at the Metropolitan Trial Court of Manila in 2002. She later served as the judge of the Regional Trial Court of Manila for 8 years.