Six men were convicted in 2000 of rape and murdering a mother and her two daughters in Parañaque, Philippines in June 1991. Only the oldest daughter, 19-year-old Carmela was raped. The case was a media sensation in the Philippines and it was dubbed the Vizconde Massacre.
The six defendants, Hubert Webb, Antonio Lejano Jr., Michael Gatchalian, Miguel Rodriguez, Hospicio Fernandez, and Peter Estrada were arrested in 1995 and held in pre-trial detention for five years awaiting trial. Webb was alleged to have raped Carmela, but the others were charged with the rape as co-conspirators.
Also convicted in 2000 was police officer Gerardo Biong who was found guilty of being an accessory to the murders by allegedly causing the destruction of evidence at the crime scene.
The six murder defendants denied having any part in the crime and presented alibi defenses of being elsewhere when the murders occurred. Webb had the alibi of being in the United States living in Anaheim Hills, California (35 miles from Los Angeles) more than 7,500 miles from the Philippines at the time of the murder. Webb’s alibi was supported by travel documents, visas, airline tickets, purchase receipts, and eyewitnesses. The day before the murders Webb bought a Toyota that he registered with the California DMV, and on the day of the murders he bought a bicycle and had the receipt to prove it.
The defendants also presented evidence showing that the prosecution’s star witness Jessica M. Alfaro, who claimed to have been present in the house at the time of the rape and murders, had a bad reputation for truthfulness and that her account of the crime was beyond belief.
The Philippines doesn’t have jury trials, and the judge found that Alfaro’s detailed narration of the crime and the events surrounding it were convincing, even though she didn’t report that she had knowledge of the crime until four years after it occurred.
Alfaro also provided the key testimony against Biong, claiming she had seen him destroy evidence.
The six defendants convicted of murder and rape were sentenced to life in prison and Biong was sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in prison.
The defendant’s convictions were affirmed on appeal based on the reasoning that Alfaro’s positive identification of them trumped their alibi defense — including Webb’s substantial evidence of being in the U.S. at the time of the murder.
It was discovered post-conviction that Alfaro was a paid informant of the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and that she volunteered to act out the role of an eyewitness to the rape of Carmela and the three murders. Evidence was also discovered that the NBI coached and manipulated Alfaro’s testimony against the seven defendants.
Webb sought and was granted court ordered post-conviction DNA testing of semen recovered from Carmela in an effort to prove his innocence. On April 27, 2010 the NBI informed the court that it had turned the semen over to the trial court as evidence at the men’s trial. However, the prosecution did not offer the semen specimen into evidence and it was not listed as evidence that was in the court’s custody.
Based on the new evidence the government had either failed to preserve or was concealing the semen so it couldn’t be tested, and the new evidence undermining the credibility of Alfaro’s testimony, including her testimony against Biong, the seven defendants filed motions to acquit them of their convictions.
The Philippines Supreme Court en banc acquitted all seven defendants on December 14, 2010. Their ruling concluded:
In our criminal justice system, what is important is, not whether the court entertains doubts about the innocence of the accused since an open mind is willing to explore all possibilities, but whether it entertains a reasonable, lingering doubt as to his guilt. For, it would be a serious mistake to send an innocent man to jail where such kind of doubt hangs on to one’s inner being, like a piece of meat lodged immovable between teeth.
Will the Court send the accused to spend the rest of their lives in prison on the testimony of an NBI asset who proposed to her handlers that she take the role of the witness to the Vizconde massacre that she could not produce?
WHEREFORE, the Court … ACQUITS accused-appellants … of the crimes of which they were charged for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. They are ordered immediately RELEASED from detention …
(Lejano vs. Philippines and Philippines vs. Webb, et al., G.R. No. 176389 — G.R. No. 176864. 12-14- 2010.)
The six defendants convicted of rape and murder were released later that day after 15 years of incarceration since their jailing in 1995. The six defendants convicted of murder were jailed pre-trial for five years before their trial in 2000. Ex-police officer Biong had been released two weeks earlier, on November 29, 2010, after completing his sentence. Since all the men were acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence, they cannot be retried because it would be double jeopardy.
The United States’ legal system has had an influence on the Philippines since the Spanish-American War in 1898. The 1987 Philippine Constitution’s Bill of Rightsrecognizes the same rights as the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution with one exception: a person charged with a crime does not have the right to a jury trial. However, it includes several provisions that significantly exceed the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Some of those provisions are in Article 3, Section 12:
(1) Any person under investigation for the commission of an offense shall have the right to be informed of his right to remain silent and to have competent and independent counsel preferably of his own choice. If the person cannot afford the services of counsel, he must be provided with one. These rights cannot be waived except in writing and in the presence of counsel.
(2) No torture, force, violence, threat, intimidation, or any other means which vitiate the free will shall be used against him. Secret detention places, solitary, incommunicado, or other similar forms of detention are prohibited.
(3) Any confession or admission obtained in violation of this or Section 17 hereof shall be inadmissible in evidence against him.
(4) The law shall provide for penal and civil sanctions for violations of this section as well as compensation to and rehabilitation of victims of torture or similar practices, and their families.
Section 12(1) does away with the need for a Miranda warning because a person can only waive their right to remain silent “in writing and in the presence of counsel.” In the U.S. a dispute about when and if a Miranda warning was given determines the admissibility of an alleged “confession.” Also, in 2008 thePhilippine Congress enacted the additional safeguard against false confessions of requiring that “All statements made by a person during a custodial interrogation shall be electronically recorded.”