Last 7 December, the Sandiganbayan promulgated its decision in the plunder case filed against ex-Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., Revilla’s chief of staff Richard Cambe and businesswoman Janet Napoles. Only Napoles and Cambe were convicted and sentenced to serve prison terms.
It was a split-decision. Of the five justices who tried the plunder case, three justices voted to acquit Revilla, while the remaining two voted to convict him.
Despite his acquittal, Revilla was found liable, together with Napoles and Cambe, to return to the government the amount of P124 million in Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) funds.
In other words, Revilla was found not guilty of stealing public funds, but the money, or part of it, was with him all the while, which amount he must return to the government.
How did the Sandiganbayan rationalize its ruling?
According to the Sandiganbayan, the evidence of the prosecution was not enough to establish the guilt of Revilla beyond reasonable doubt, and he is, therefore, entitled to an acquittal in the criminal aspect of the case; but because it was established by preponderance of evidence that that P124 million in PDAF funds were not validly in Revilla’s possession, Revilla must return the same to the government.
More specifically, the Sandiganbayan found reasonable doubt as to the criminal liability of Revilla, but the act of plunder, from which the civil liability of the accused may possibly arise, exists and was duly established in the case.
That rationalization may find support in law books, but it does not sit well with many because it is not logical. Understandably, questions arise.
For instance, if Revilla had no right to the P124 million of PDAF money in his possession, what was that money doing with him in the first place?
Under the rules on evidence, it is presumed that an unlawful act was done with an unlawful intent. Why was that rule not applied to Revilla who, as found by the Sandiganbayan, is obligated to return the PDAF fund to the government because it was not supposed to be with Revilla to begin with?
Moreover, it is absurd for Revilla not to know that P124 million of PDAF money, or part of it, was in his actual possession. That’s too much money to ignore.
The 3-2 vote taken in the plunder case against Revilla is an indication that the acquittal of Revilla is based on an unstable legal foundation. Precisely for that reason, the prosecution should take remedial measures to correct the irregularity.
Pursuant to the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution, the acquittal of the accused bars the prosecution from bringing an appeal to a higher court. An exception may be invoked, however, when the acquittal is attended with grave abuse of discretion.
If such grave abuse of discretion is, indeed, established, then the prosecution, acting through the Office of the Solicitor General, may question the acquittal by way of a special civil action for certiorari filed with the Supreme Court (SC). There is ample jurisprudence in support of this measure.
If the High Court is convinced that the acquittal of Revilla was attended with grave abuse of discretion, then his acquittal is void and the SC can either proceed to convict him or to direct the Sandiganbayan to hold further proceedings with a view towards Revilla’s conviction.
From the available indications so far, and considering that the decision of the Sandiganbayan is a narrow 3-2 ruling, there is a good chance that the High Court will accommodate the prosecution and ascertain if Revilla is entitled to an acquittal or not.
Since the Revilla acquittal has too many badges of unsound jurisprudence, the public has a right to a more authoritative judicial pronouncement. To leave the Revilla acquittal as it is will encourage congressmen of the future to mess around with the PDAF, snug in the knowledge that there is a Revilla precedent to invoke. In the end, public interest is compromised and the article in the Constitution on the accountability of public officers will be put to naught.
All that should be enough impetus for the prosecution to take up this matter with the High Tribunal. Under the rules of procedure in the SC, the prosecution has 60 days from 7 December within which to do so.
The prosecution must act immediately. Time is running out.