The Supreme Court has acquitted two suspected fraternity members of hazing in a 2009 case that involved the death of a college student in Cavite, citing the failure of the prosecution to prove the petitioners’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The Court said in a press statement on Wednesday, October 27, that it granted the petition of suspected Tau Gamma Phi Fraternity members Carlos Paulo Bartolome and Joel Bandalan to reverse and set aside the Court of Appeals (CA) rulings that affirmed the conviction of the two for violation of Republic Act No. 8049 or the Anti-Hazing Law of 1995.
“After a careful review of the case and the body of evidence adduced before the RTC, the Court is not convinced that petitioners are guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the offense of hazing. Thus, the Court resolves to reverse the appealed decision and acquit petitioners,” the Court’s Third Division said in a decision penned by Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting.
The ruling was promulgated on June 28, 2021, but only uploaded on the SC website on October 26.
The Court also ordered the Bureau of Corrections to release Bartolome and Bandalan petitioners “unless they are being held for some other lawful cause,” the statement read.
According to the prosecution, police in Silang, Cavite received a call from Estrella Hospital staff on October 22, 2009, to report that a hazing victim was brought to the hospital, later identified as John Daniel Samparada, an 18-year-old college student from the Lyceum of the Philippines in Cavite. He had bruises on his thighs.
Bartolome, Bandalan, and another unidentified male brought Samparada to the hospital. Upon investigation, police concluded that the two were fraternity members based on a document recovered from them.
The petitioners told the police that they had brought Samparada to the hospital as he lost consciousness during their outing in Silang. They said that they had met him through the owner of the house where they got together for night swimming.
The petitioners said that they left the house to buy provisions, and that upon their return, Samparada fell to the floor, hit his head on the pavement, and complained of difficulty in breathing. They rushed him to the hospital where police later arrived and questioned them.
The petitioners said that at the police station, they were forced to admit that they participated in the activity that led to Samparada’s death.
From RTC to SC
On September 4, 2014, Branch 20 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Imus, Cavite, convicted Bartolome and Bandalan of hazing, based on the prosecution’s presentation of circumstantial evidence.
The RTC imposed the penalty of reclusion perpetua on the the two, and ordered them to each pay Samparada’s heirs P50,000 as indemnity and P100,000 for temperate damages.
The CA affirmed the conviction but modified the award of damages, prompting the petitioners to elevate their case to the High Court.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that “it is undisputed that no direct evidence was presented to link petitioners to Samparada’s death. In fact, the RTC, as affirmed by the CA, convicted petitioners through circumstantial evidence.”
“In sum, the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution has failed to establish the elements of hazing and to produce an unbroken chain that leads to one fair and reasonable conclusion pointing to petitioners, to the exclusion of others, as the persons liable for the death of Samparada. Hence, petitioners’ conviction for violation of RA 8049 based on circumstantial evidence cannot be upheld,” the Court said.
The High Court said that while direct evidence is not always necessary as it has become a settled rule that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to support a conviction, “jurisprudence instructs that ‘for circumstantial evidence to be sufficient to support a conviction, all circumstances must be consistent with each other, consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty, and at the same time inconsistent with the hypothesis that he is innocent.’”
The SC press statement also said that the Court “further emphasized that conviction based on circumstantial evidence can be upheld only if the circumstances proven constitute an unbroken chain which leads to one fair and reasonable conclusion that points to the accused, to the exclusion of all others, as the guilty person.”
Elements of hazing not established
The Supreme Court said in its decision that the prosecution failed to establish the elements of hazing under RA 8049 – that Tau Gamma Phi conducted an initiation rite for admission of new members, and that Samparada was a recruit or a neophyte.
As such, “this prevents the Court from concluding that the injuries he sustained were due to the fraternity’s hazing-related activities,” the Court said.
The Court noted that it “holds in high regard RA 8049 and the reason what it was signed into law” – to prevent more senseless deaths. But it also stressed that “in any crime, the accused enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence and his guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt in order to attain a conviction.”
The Supreme Court stressed that “it is the primordial duty of the prosecution to present its side with clarify and persuasion, so that conviction becomes the only logical and inevitable conclusion. It is required of the prosecution to justify the conviction of the accused with moral certainty. Upon the failure to meet this test, acquittal becomes the constitutional duty of the Court, lest its mind be tortured with the thought that it has imprisoned an innocent man for the rest of his life.” – Rappler.com