The stakes in the Maguindanao massacre case
It has been two years since the ghastly Maguindanao massacre took place.
Fifty-eight innocent lives were snuffed out in that savage incident. The corresponding criminal cases were filed seasonably enough.
But up to this writing, no verdict has yet been rendered. Under the circumstances, unless a miracle happens, none may be expected in the next year or two.
People are entitled to ask: What's up?
As of last week, the prosecution and the defense panels were reportedly squabbling over the number of days every week that should be set aside for the trial of the case.
The trial judge had apparently set two days a week for the hearing of the case.
A member of the defense panel is said to have suggested that one more day should be added to the two-day a week trial dates.
Surprisingly, a prosecutor reportedly retorted that another day would be unacceptable because she had other cases to attend to. We say "surprisingly" because usually in the practice of law, it is the defense - especially if they have no defesce at all - that would use all dilatory tactics to postpone and postpone and postpone the trial of cases until doomsday. By doing so, it is hoped that their clients would get acquitted simply by wearing out the complainants, their witnesses and the prosecution.
In any event, there is no sign that in the legal tussle mentioned above, one side prevailed over the other.
Speedy trial sacrificed
What is certain is that the speedy justice that the Bill of Rights of the Constitution guarantees to litigants, especially, in criminal cases is being cast aside for the comfort and convenience of the legal panels.
This is sad. Because it is certain that deep down in their heart of hearts, both the offended parties and their heirs and the accused and their families desire a rapid closure to this case. On the part of the complainants, they want the accused to be convicted, and, on the part of the latter, they would want nothing better than their acquittal sooner than later.
By no means is the judge handling the case being blamed for the delays in the trial of the case. From afar, it looks like the judge, who is a lady, is evenhanded.
But what of the lawyers for the prosecution? And for the defense?
Tip of systemic iceberg
Many things can be said for or against the culpability of either panel of lawyers for the said delays. In fairness, whatever the lawyers do either in speedying up or deferring the hearings of their cases actually touches only the tip of the systemic iceberg that blocks the swift administration of justice in the country.
Unlike the more or less swift manner of delivering justice under a jury system as they do in the US or in many democratic republics in Europe, our people have much to complain about and against the 'relaxed' way justice is delivered in this country.
However, the suggestion to adopt the jury system is a facile one. There is no guarantee that we'd be better off judicial-wise if we adopt jury trials to hasten decisions in criminal cases.
For one thing, our criminal law is rather technically complicated as it is mainly based on the Spanish Codigo Penal rather than on the so-called Common Law principles that evolved through centuries old usage in the UK and later in the US.
Then, who is to say that members of the jury would be less prone to bribery than a judge?
No hair-trigger solution
What then is the solution?
There is no hair-trigger way out of the problem. What is immediately available are the rusty Rules of Court whose regulations on speedy justice have been more frustrated than observed in our courts of law.
What then can be done?
Revise the Rules of Court. Make the time limits set for trials and hearings of cases mandatory rather than directory.
Make dilatory tactics in court hearings grounds for disbarment of lawyers.
The parties may, perhaps, be granted the right to freely ask for deferments of trials on congently reasonable grounds for no more than two occasions. After which, the cases should be tried with or without the presence of the parties and/or their counsel.
It's a shame that a crime of the magnitude of the Maguindanao massacre should continue hanging in the air instead of having the guilty parties hanging - if even figuratively - in their cells.
In other jurisdictions, such as L.A., Dr. Conrad Murray who was accused of having caused the death of the pop star, Michael Jackson, through 'malpractice' last year was convicted days ago after a six week trial.
In Norway, judicial proceedings began days ago against Anders Behring Brewick, who was accused of killing 77 people in a shooting spree last July.
Actual trial is being set early next year where postponements would probably be next to impossible to obtain.
What message do these two cases send us?
Fixed rules for all
That fixed judicicial rules for all - rich or poor, politically powerful or totally unconnected, man or woman - ensure easier and faster delivery of justice.
Of course, the US and Norway have proven jury systems that work.
Still, it is probably the Court Rules faithfully followed and strictly observed that make for the efficient judicial system in those countries that is accepted by most of the peoples there as protective of their rights and beneficial to their best interests.
When will we have such a system?
It is really all up to us, the people of the Republic.
We can start now by demanding through collective determination and firm action that the government should make the delivery of rapid justice the centerpiece of it's agenda of public service.
Or we can fold our hands, shake our heads, and, wait for the crow to grow white feathers.
Mr. Pimentel is a former Senate President of the Republic of the Philippines.