Villarosa Conviction for Murder of Quintos Boys Reversed by Court of Appeals; Politics Played Role in Reversal ?

Today’s Inquirer headline reads “Court Acquits GMA ally”. Former Occidental Mindoro Congressman Jose Villarosa, husband of current Occidental Mindoro Congresswoman Amelita “Girlie” Villarosa, a key ally of President Arroyo, was acquitted yesterday of the cold-blooded murder of brothers Michael and Paul Quintos. The Quintos boys were the sons of Villarosa’s political rival, ex-representative Ricardo Quintos. They were killed during the height of a land and political dispute between the two families in 1997. In March 2006, Villarosa, along with his co-accused, was sentenced to death for the murders.

The conviction was issued by Judge Ma. Theresa Yadao of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, based on the testimony of a single witness, gunman Eduardo Hermoso. Villarosa was the alleged mastermind of the murders. As reported by the Inquirer:

Saying the mere confession of the gunman implicating Villarosa as one of those who planned the killing of brothers Paul and Michael Quintos was not enough, the Court of Appeals overturned his and three others’ murder conviction handed down by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court in 2006.
Estelito Mendoza, Villarosa’s counsel, said the acquittal of the four men was immediately executory.

In acquitting Villarosa, the appellate court said circumstances failed to show “an unbroken chain which leads one to fairly and reasonably conclude that accused-appellant Villarosa planned or authored the crimes.”

“If a person is acquitted after trial, his presumption of innocence becomes conclusive because of the principle of double jeopardy … Those who are acquitted are completely free,” Mendoza told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview.

The appellate court’s fifth division, in a decision penned by Justice Noel Tijam and dated March 18, ordered the release of Villarosa and “Mamburao 6” farmers Ruben Balaguer, Gelito Bautista and Mario Tobias.

The other members of the fifth division are Martin Villarama and Sesinando Villon.

Prison authorities officially released Villarosa from custody Wednesday afternoon, said Supt. Ramon Reyes, the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) officer in charge.
The appellate court upheld the conviction of three other farmers, including that of Eduardo Hermoso whose confession had implicated the ex-lawmaker in the planning of the killings.

Villarosa’s acquittal raises a number of questions. Did politics play a part in the reversal of Villarosa’s conviction ? The Inquirer take on the case seems to say it does. Villarosa’s wife, the House Deputy Speaker and Secretary of President Arroyo’s political party KAMPI, was instrumental in shielding Arroyo from the many allegations of corruption in recent months. She even admitted that party funds were given out in cash, from P50,000.00 to P500,000.00, to local government officials about the time that Arroyo was fighting moves to impeach her from office. That Villarosa is an Arroyo loyalist is admitted and speculation is rife that she had been lobbying, successfully it now seems, to have her husband acquitted.

According to the Quintos camp, the Villarosas were not reticent about their knowledge of the impending Court of Appeals decision and had freely talked out it, even in radio programs. In the words of the Quintos patriarch:

“They were very sure of an acquittal. They were boasting about it even before the appellate court issued a ruling today (Wednesday)”

Moreover, Ricardo Quintos, in a related Inquirer story:

also accused the Court of Appeals Associate Justice Noel Tijam of accepting bribes for a decision in favor of Villarosa.

Quintos claimed the “speedy” resolution of the case buttressed his suspicions. “Totoong bayad nga siya (It’s true he’s been bribed],” Quintos said boldly.

Justice Tijam was appointed to the Court of Appeals by President Arroyo.

It appears that the Quintos family repeatedly tried to have Justice Tijam inhibit himself from the case, to no avail.

Malacanang, in rather bad taste considering the sensitiveness of the issue, immediately congratulated Congressman Villarosa on his “early Easter gift”. The Inquirer also noted wryly that exoneration did wonders for Villarosa’s health, since he had been confined at the Makati Medical Center for months recuperating from “major lung surgery”. He walked out of the hospital smiling the afternoon the CA decision was handed down.

Finally, long-settled jurisprudence holds that the testimony of a single witness is sufficient to uphold a conviction for murder and the trail court’s assessment of the credibility of witnesses and their statements should be binding on appellate courts. Thus, in People of the Philippines vs. Lotoc et. al., the Supreme Court succinctly decreed:

The testimony of a single witness, if positive and credible, is sufficient to sustain a conviction for murder. The trial court’s assessment of the credibility of witnesses and their testimonies is binding on appellate courts, absent any fact or circumstance of weight and substance that may have been overlooked, misapprehended or misapplied.

Why did the Court of Appeals apparently disregard this and other rulings?

Nothing can bring back the lives of Michael and Paul Quintos. But their families (the Quintos brothers were married) deserve to have all their questions answered.

Meanwhile, the Quintos family can only pin their hopes on “divine justice”.

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