Philippine judiciary

Prosecution asks new judge in Calbayog mayor slay trial to allow witness substitution

Jazmin Bonifacio
Prosecution asks new judge in Calbayog mayor slay trial to allow witness substitution

TRIBUTE. A billboard is seen on the site of the March 2021 ambush that killed former Calbayog mayor Ronaldo Aquino, his driver Dennis Abayon (from left), police security aide Master Sergeant Rodeo Sario, and bystander Clint John Paul Yauder.

Jazmin Bonifacio

Judge Reynaldo Clemens inhibits and designates Gandara RTC Judge Maricar Lucero of Branch 41 as the new judge in the four murder cases and one frustrated murder case

TACLOBAN, Philippines – The private prosecutor for the family of Calbayog Mayor Ronaldo Aquino and the security escorts slain with him on March 8, 2021 filed a motion for reconsideration following the court’s denial of the motion to hear the testimonies of a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agent and the leader of the scenes of crime officers (SOCO) that investigated the killing.

Alma Uy, counsel for the Aquino camp, said Calbayog RTC Judge Reynaldo Clemens of Branch 31 on November 9 denied their motion to have SOCO’s Police Lt. Joel Valencia to substitute for Rudy Brace, who had withdrawn as a witness. 

Clemens also denied the substitution of witness Jay Duterte by NBI agent Ferdinand Dagdag, she added.

The following day, November 10, Clemens in open court announced he was inhibiting the case, claiming the prosecution does not trust him anymore. 

Clemens claimed the prosecution does not trust him anymore and designated Gandara RTC Judge Maricar Lucero of Branch 41 as the new judge to handle the five cases – four murder cases and one frustrated murder case. 

Nine cops – Lieutenant Colonel Harry Sucayre, Major Shyrille Tan, Captain Dino Goles, Lieutenant Julio Armeza Jr., Staff Sergeant Neil Cebu, Staff Sergeant Edsel Omega, Staff Sergeant Randy Merelos, Corporal Julius Garcia, and Patrolman Niño Salem – are accused of murdering Aquino, his police security aide Master Sergeant Rodeo Sario, his driver Dennis Abayon, and bystander Clint John Paul Yauder.

They also face frustrated murder charges involving another security aide, Mansfield Labonite.

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DEFENDANTS. Some of the nine cops on trial for the March 8, 2021 ambush slay of Calbayog Mayor Ronaldo Aquino at the first day of bail hearings on October 5.

Clemens’ claim surprised the defense and prosecution panels, Uy told Rappler on November 29. Neither side had filed a motion for Judge Clemens to inhibit, she added.

The lawyer said that prior to Clemens’ move to inhibit, she had just asked the court to receive the return of the cyber warrant on the cellphone of one of the accused, which fell on the crime scene.

She had also asked that five of the accused be excluded from participating in the bail hearings because their application for bail had earlier been denied and none had been refiled.

Clemens mentioned the petition for exclusion as a sign of distrust when he announced his inhibition.

He then walked out of the courtroom.  

“There is, therefore, no termination yet of the bail hearings and the prosecutor was unable to formally offer the prosecution’s exhibits,” Uy pointed out.

Witnesses

Uy said the petition for reconsideration of the denial of substitution of witnesses is addressed to Lucero, the new judge.

Brace and Duterte were among the witnesses originally named by the prosecution. Uy said Brace was a direct eye witness as he was at the bridge when the 2021 ambush took place. Duterte was supposed to testify on CCTV footage showing the movement of vehicles that figured in the ambush.

The substitution motion put the spotlight on pressure borne by witnesses. 

Uy acknowledged the two were not the first witnesses to back out. She said four others had earlier sent word that they would not testify. 

A woman witness, she added, even transferred residence due to fears about her personal safety.

The prosecution has submitted a list of almost 200 witnesses. Most of those who backed out had substitutes who already testified during the marathon bail hearings, Uy said.

“It was only the NBI and the SOCO witnesses who were not allowed to substitute the original witnesses listed,” she told Rappler.

Ann Sario, the wife of slain security escort Rodeo Sario, lamented their long wait for justice.

She asked President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Justice Secretary Boying Remulla to also help identify the mastermind of the ambush. 

“For two years, our family has lived in agony. The children miss their Papa, especially now with another Christmas without him,” she said.

Sario left behind two daughters, aged 11 and three. – Rappler.com

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