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Opinion | National

MEL STA. MARIA | Vhong vs Deniece: How courts decide who is telling the truth. (You'll be surprised)
The online news portal of TV5

Atty. Mel Sta. Maria is the resident legal analyst of TV5. He is Dean of the FEU Insitute of Law. He also teaches at the Ateneo School of Law and daily co-hosts the program 'Relasyon' on Radyo Singko 92.3 News FM.

The public has been riveted to news about TV personality Vhong Navarro, the severe beating he has taken, and the alleged rape behind it of one Deniece Cornejo. Ostensibly, Navarro was mauled by Cornejo's friend, businessman Cedric Lee, and by Lee's companions, after they caught him in the act of sexually assaulting Cornejo.

They effected a "citizen's arrest", and brought the badly beaten celebrity to the Taguig police. 

Navarro denies the charge of rape and says he was set up by Cornejo, Lee, and company, in line with an extortion try. The TV personality acknowledges some sexual contact between him and Cornejo, but insists that all encounters were consensual.

The public is naturally intrigued by one question: Who is telling the truth?

Investigations are ongoing, so it is best to let official processes prevail. In the meantime, this may be an opportune time to review a more interesting question: How do we know who is telling the truth? More precisely, how does a court process the "he said-she said" to arrive at a conclusion, specifically in the context of a rape case, when all it has to go by are conflicting allegations?

How is a judge guided in the determination of the truth? What do courts rely on as indicators of the credibility or incredulity of a rape allegation?

In a case of attempted rape, for example, where, let us say, there is no physical evidence to go by, where there are no CCTV footages to speak of, where all we have to go by is the word of the complainant versus the word of the accused, how shall the court know which testimony to believe?

It may interest, even fascinate, you to know that the legal system has built-in instincts and standards for parsing testimonies, for decoding behaviours, for making sense of both sides of a rape charge, and for determining credibility. 

For example:

If a victim "waste(s) no time in reporting her ordeal to the authorities", this spontaneity, according to the Supreme Court in People vs. Cadampog, G.R. No. 148144, enhances the truthfulness of her story.

"The fact that the offended party, after the beastly attack, immediately left her house to report the molestation against her honor, is a clear manifestation that she was indeed raped."

In certain cases where the ordeal is just too gross and barbaric, initial silence is taken as understandable. The court will factor in that fear, shame and perceived public humiliation can and will be as natural to a victim as her sense of outrage. This is what happened in the case of People vs. Jose et al (G.R. No.L-28232) – more popularly known as the Maggie De La Riva case.

On the other hand, and beyond the timing of coming out to make a charge or accusation, the court says an alleged victim's story becomes suspect when, just after the incident, she does not exhibit "anger, shame, or hurt as would a woman whose virtue has been violated" (People vs. Lamarozza G.R No.126121) or who was the subject of an attempt at such violation. Thus, as held in the Lamarozza case, when an alleged victim "remain(s) friendly" with the alleged predator "and would even go out to the fields with him after the alleged rape" this behavior would be "unnatural for someone who allegedly went through a harrowing experience." This observation is most certainly applicable even to a case of attempted rape.

As to the predator, he cannot escape liability just because he and the victim had a previous romantic relationship. In People vs. Bayrante ( G.R. No. 188978), the Supreme Court decreed that "even if the alleged romantic relationship were true, this fact does not necessarily negate rape, for a man cannot demand sexual gratification from a fiancée and worse, employ violence upon her on the pretext of love because love is not a license for lust." Again, this is equally true in attempted rape.

The Vhong Navarro incident likely raises similar arguments and questions even in casual conversations of citizens. It is fascinating to realize that “common sense” arguments and questions – backed up by precedents established by psychology forensics – are in fact part of the institutionalized thinking of our justice system.