Calling A Spade... -- By Solita Collas-Monsod

You goofed, Leila

Posted on June 30, 2011

Leila de Lima has always held my respect and admiration for her competence and integrity. So I was dumbfounded when she announced in her press conference on Tuesday that information (more accurately, the absence of it) in some magnetic reel data tapes of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) listing down departures and arrivals, “rebut, or negate, or destroy or even shatter” Hubert Webb’s defense of alibi.

Why was I dumbfounded? Because as the reader knows, I have been following the Vizconde case ever since the massacre occurred. And it is a fact that Leandro Verceles, then head of the Bureau of Immigrations (BI), had already declared, very early on, that the BI had no record of the departure of Hubert Webb on March 9, 199. One does not know how Verceles made that conclusion, but presumably it must have been on the basis of those tapes -- unless the BI at that time had a duplicate record set or data source. In any case, that the BI had no information on Webb’s departure is nothing new. So how can it rebut, negate, destroy, shatter Hubert’s defense of alibi? (By the way, Webb lawyer Zenaida Ongkiko Acorda, a chip off the old block -- her father is Mario Ongkiko -- points out that the BI tapes record that Webb arrived in the Philippines in October 1992, so if he did not leave on March 9, 1991, when do those tapes say he left?)

De Lima apparently failed to take into account what the trial records will show: that Hubert produced his passport, which showed the immigration stamp of his departure on March 9, 1991, with the signature of the immigration officer (which the latter, a hostile witness, attested was his signature and his stamp), the date of his arrival in the US (March 9, 1991), the date of his departure from the US (Oct. 26, 1992) and the date of his arrival in the Philippines (Oct. 27, 1992). Despite the fact that a passport is an official document, and should be taken at its face value, and that the authenticity of Webb’s passport was attested to by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Webb also produced certifications from the US government (the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department).

De Lima’s failure to take into account such overwhelming evidence (not to mention the testimony of 95 witnesses and more than 350 pieces of other documentary evidence to show that Webb was in the US when the Vizconde massacre occurred) echoes the failure of the trial judge, Amelita Tolentino, who also pronounced that Webb’s defense of alibi was “weak,” and found him (and the et als) guilty of murder.

That decision, by the way, earned Tolentino a seat in the Court of Appeals, which then apparently encouraged her later to to apply for the position of associate justice of the Supreme Court (unsuccessful). But finally, after 10 years of appeals, Tolentino got her comeuppance: a reversal of her decision, and a tongue-lashing that would have made anyone less than thick-skinned shrivel in shame. The reader who is truly interested in the case should read in particular the concurring opinion of Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, although the ponencia of AJ Roberto Abad and the concurring opinion of AJ Conchita Morales also make mincemeat of the prosecution witnesses and highlight the NBI’s less-than-satisfactory role in the case. Justice Martin Villarama’s dissent was an echo of Tolentino’s reversed decision.

Is Leila de Lima on her way to getting a similar tongue-lashing from the Supreme Court? The lawyers of Hubert Webb have announced that they are considering options such as asking the SC to cite her for contempt, and even asking for her disbarment. Along the same lines, is De Lima using this issue as a springboard to the Senate in 2013 (as one of Webb’s lawyers avers), in much the same manner as Judge Tolentino used her decision as a springboard to the Court of Appeals?

Only time will tell. However, I have a feeling that the complete transcript of De Lima’s press conference will show that she will not have left herself wide open to contempt and disbarment charges. She is much too good a lawyer for that. Nor do I believe, at this point, that she is even thinking of 2013. She has too much integrity for that.

On the other hand, there is no question that she has goofed. Big time. Which has to be expected, because no one is perfect. What is important is that so far her performance shows a great deal more positives than negatives. And what is important is to determine why she goofed, so that she can make sure that the recurrence is minimized.

So what made her goof? An at least equally admired lady with whom I talked provides possible answers: It could be that De Lima has been under so much political pressure, at the same time that she has been given so many assignments, that she had not the time or the energy to do the proper homework on this one; or relatedly, that she has had no time to stand back, as it were, and see the forest for the trees; or, still relatedly, that she is beginning to accept without question, or automatically defend, the word of the attached agencies under her -- in this case, the NBI, on whom now the focus shifts.

If I have suggested to the reader to read the SC decisions on the Webb case -- the ponencia, the concurring opinions, the dissenting opinion -- more so should De Lima read them. Had she done so in the first place, the sins of commission and omission of the NBI would have been brought home to her in stark detail. And it would have been clear to her that the so-called “reinvestigation” that the NBI conducted, supposedly in an attempt to find the real killers of the Vizconde ladies, was actually more of an attempt to show that they were correct in the first place. Or rather in the third place, because before they focused on Webb, they had brought up two sets of suspects, whom they were sure had committed the crime.

You goofed, Leila. Admit it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and learn from this setback. I still have faith in you.