Philippine judiciary

EXPLAINER: How court decided on De Lima’s latest acquittal

Jairo Bolledo

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EXPLAINER: How court decided on De Lima’s latest acquittal

ACQUITTED. Former senator Leila de Lima alights from the police's service vehicle to attend the promulgation of one of her cases on May 12, 2023.

Jairo Bolledo/ Rappler

Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 204 says De Lima was acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt

MANILA, Philippines – Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204 acquitted detained former senator Leila de Lima in one of her two remaining drug cases on Friday, May 12.

The former lawmaker’s latest court victory is her second acquittal after another Muntinlupa court cleared De Lima in one of her charges in February 2021. This means De Lima is now facing only one charge – the one pending before Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 256. (READ: TIMELINE: Leila de Lima in detention)

The opposition leader also remains in detention because her petition for bail in her pending case has yet to be resolved by the court.

On Monday, Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara cleared De Lima of her charge in relation to alleged violation of section 5 of Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. Ronnie Dayan, De Lima’s former aide, was also cleared for the same case.

Below are the reasons why Judge Alcantara ruled to acquit the opposition leader.

The decision

In its 39-page decision, the court noted that the sole issue in the case was whether De Lima was criminally and civilly liable in the charge against her. Judge Alcantara pointed out that De Lima was acquitted on grounds of reasonable doubt.

By definition, proof beyond reasonable doubt is a requirement that must be met to find an accused guilty of a crime. In De Lima’s case, this meant the prosecution failed to provide evidence that will successfully pin De Lima in her drug charge.

Witnesses’ testimony

In the charge against De Lima, the former lawmaker was accused of allegedly receiving money from the illegal drug trade in Bilibid amounting to P5 million on November 24, 2012, and then another P5 million on December 15 of the same year.

  • To establish the allegations, the court said the prosecutors presented two witnesses: former Bureau of Corrections acting chief Rafael Ragos and intelligence agent Jovencio Ablen. Both of them testified that they allegedly delivered money to both De Lima and Dayan.
  • But, the court noted that only Ragos had personal knowledge of the money’s supposed source.
  • “According to Ragos’ original testimony, the money was placed in his quarters bedroom. Thereafter, he received a phone call from Hans Tan, a high- profile inmate involved in drugs, who told him to deliver the money to accused Dayan and De Lima,” the court said.
Illegal drug trade exists in Bilibid but…

According to the court, the prosecution “successfully established” that rampant illegal drug trade exists in the New Bilibid Prison.

  • The court noted that based on the provisions of RA No. 9165 and available jurisprudence or court decisions, “illegal drug trade encompasses all transactions involving the illegal trafficking of dangerous drugs.” Muntinlupa City RTC Branch 204 said the said violation may be committed through: a) illegal trafficking using electronic devices; b) acting as broker in transactions involving illegal trafficking of dangerous drugs.
  • According to the decision, the prosecutors were able to prove the “complex network of transactions” of illegal drug trade in the national penitentiary run by high-profile persons deprived of liberty (PDL). The court added that the prosecution was also able to provide witnesses who testified on how these high-profile PDLs brokered drug transactions inside Bilibid.
  • Lastly, the court also took note of the presentation of the testimony of a financial investigator from the Anti-Money Laundering Council who examined suspicious accounts. In the said bank accounts, millions of pesos would be deposited from various parts of the country.
  • Both De Lima and Dayan were accused as “conspirators” in the said illegal drug trade. This means the prosecution “must further establish conspiracy with the direct participants in the illegal drug trade,” the court said.
  • However, the court said the conspiracy was properly noted in the amended charge against De Lima, but not in the positive and conclusive evidence.
Ragos’ testimony cast reasonable doubt on accusations

The court said Ragos’ recantation cast reasonable doubt on his testimony’s credibility.

  • On April 30, 2022, Ragos retracted his accusations against De Lima. In a sworn affidavit, he said that “there is no truth whatsoever” to his claims regarding the delivery of money to De Lima and Dayan. 
  • In its ruling, the court said recantations “are viewed with suspicion and reservation.” It added that retracted testimonies are unreliable because of the probability that they will be repudiated later. However, the court said retractions can be considered and upheld when special circumstances and the retraction raise doubts on the testimony given.
  • The court added that another rare exception in accepting recantations is when there is no evidence that can sustain the judgment of conviction, aside from the testimony of a witness or witnesses.
  • “Under the circumstances of this case, the testimony of witness Ragos is necessary to sustain any possible conviction. Without his testimony, the crucial link to establish conspiracy is shrouded with reasonable doubt,” the court explained.
  • With this, the court said the retraction created reasonable doubt that warranted De Lima’s acquittal. Specifically, Ragos’ recantation created reasonable doubt about De Lima’s participation as alleged conspirator in the drug trade.
  • The court added: “As a final note, while Courts have always supported the efforts of law enforcement agencies to combat the proliferation of illegal drugs in Philippine society, vigilance in eradicating illegal drugs cannot come at the expense of disregarding the rule of law, evidence and established jurisprudence on the matter.” – Rappler.com

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.