CA again nullifies reinvestigation of Ortega slay

CMFR/Philippines – Another Division of the Court of Appeals (CA) has nullified the creation of a second panel of prosecutors to reinvestigate the killing of broadcaster and environmentalist Gerardo Ortega, and the panel’s subsequent recommendation to file murder charges against the alleged masterminds.  But the Court inhibited itself from ruling on the validity of the evidence against them.

In a 3-2 vote, the CA’s Special Tenth Division granted the 3 October 2011 petition for certiorari and prohibition filed by former Palawan governor Mario Joel Reyes and reinstated the first panel’s June and September 2011 resolutions dismissing the murder complaint against him,  Coron,  Palawan mayor Mario Reyes, and three others.

This is the second time the Court of Appeals in Manila has found grave abuse of discretion on the part of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s creation of the second panel of  prosecutors. The first instance was the CA’s Fifth Division’s granting of Coron town mayor Mario Reyes’s 28 October 2011 petition for certiorari seeking the nullification of a 7 September 2011 order by De Lima creating a new panel to conduct a reinvestigation   and to review additional evidence against him and four other alleged perpetrators in the murder of Ortega.

The Tenth Division in its 9 March 2013 decision said that the justice secretary should have resolved Ortega widow’s 29 September 2011 petition for review seeking reinstatement of the alleged masterminds and four others instead of letting the second panel continue its reinvestigation. Patria Ortega filed her petition for review 22 days after the creation of the panel.

The court said: “Incidentally, to this very date, the Court has not received any information or manifestation that this Petition for Review Ad Cautelam filed by Private Respondent has already been disposed of by Public Respondent Secretary of Justice. Hence, it is safe to assume that this case is still awaiting resolution by her office. Needless to say, since at this precise moment this finding by the first Panel of Prosecutors has not yet been reversed, affirmed or modified by Public Respondent Secretary of Justice, such finding is still valid. For all legal intents and purposes therefore, Petitioner should have not been indicted for the crime of murder.”

The court also said the second panel exceeded its power when it amended the first panel’s resolution because “the first Panel and second Panel of Prosecutors are co-equals. As such, both of them are on the same level and one cannot modify the resolution of the other. It will have to be their superior, in this case, the Public Respondent Secretary of Justice, who can, consistent with the rules, modify, affirm or reverse the finding of either of them.”

The 20-page decision was penned by Associate Justice Angelita Gacutan. Associate Justices Fernanda Peralta and Francisco Acosta concurred; while Associate Justices Noel Tijam and Romeo Barza dissented.

Branch 52 of the Regional Trial Court of Palawan is currently hearing murder charges against the gunman and his accomplices. The Reyeses remain at large, and are allegedly hiding abroad. One of the suspects, Valentin Lecias, died in September 2011; while another suspect—who is applying to be a state witness—supposedly committed suicide while in a jail.