On March 11, 1995, Filipinos young and old, heralded and applauded the decision of then Pasig City Judge Harriet Demetriou for issuing a GUILTY verdict against former Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez, for the crime of rape and murder of Eileen Sarmenta and the murder of Allan Gomez. It was a national catharsis of sorts, where all the anger, frustration, and pent up emotions of millions of people exploded. Not only was it about the crime committed but it was also about the triumph against the abuses of those wielding power. Sanchez was the epitome of how NOT to govern — goons, gold, guns, and obviously greed.
The country was shocked to learn from the authorities that this convicted mayor would be released on the basis of Republic Act 10592 which amended certain portions of the Revised Penal Code. After 26 years of well-deserved imprisonment, he resurfaced and revived the nightmare and pain of the victims’ families and all decent citizens as a whole.
Various interpretations of the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GTCA) law came about because this piece of legislation, which was signed in 2013, provided the fundamental basis for freeing Mayor Sanchez from the National Penitentiary. The said law was passed in recognition of the humane and rehabilitative principles of criminal justice which aims to facilitate the reintegration of detainees to society. Even the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to its retroactive application. With this development, the Bureau of Corrections processed the emancipation of more than 11,000 inmates.
Because of the violent reaction of various sectors — straddling the privileged and the poor, a rabid debate ensued between leaders of the different departments of the government. One side argues that Mayor Sanchez cannot be released because the exceptions of habitual delinquents, recidivists, and those charged with heinous crimes ONLY apply to those who have undergone imprisonment PRIOR to conviction. On the other hand, the Office of the President together with the Department of Justice and its agencies opine that Mayor Sanchez cannot avail of the law despite the fact that he has been convicted and is currently serving his sentence. Expectedly, a few senators aired their divergent views and added to the robust public discussions. Heinous crime, recidivism, and habitual delinquency as a rationale for the non-application of the law has been lost in translation. The tragedy of the multiple meanings of legal parlance resonates.
From a purely layman’s perspective, one cannot fathom how complicated and arduous our laws can be, and this one is a classic example. Without dissecting the differences between imprisonment before or after conviction, what constitutes a “heinous” crime has already been established. It is an offense which is clearly hateful, perverse, and atrocious, one that is repugnant to the standards of a humane and civilized society. Given the facts and evidence of the case and the decision rendered by the trial judge, the rape and murder of an innocent student, by not only the Mayor but his gang of hoodlums, is one that any parent or a human being would consider as extremely detestable. As such, the misery of the family and those closely watching this episode is even more intensified by the obvious lack of clarity in the GTCA law. The disagreements as to its intention and interpretation reflect a policy incoherence that should be resolved immediately. This incoherence is exploited by certain quarters who attribute fault to political administrations that either passed the law or interpreted it in a fashion that is perceived to be detrimental to public order and security.
The timely intervention of President Rodrigo Duterte has silenced the growing protests and assured the aggrieved public that the controversial Mayor must not be allowed to be granted his freedom.
The issue has reopened past wounds but is a way forward for our legislature to pass crisp, clear, and practical laws that must always guarantee the protection of our shared interests. And the outrage is a sign that we have still not lost the most basic values that we collectively cherish. One of which is the primacy of justice.
Ariel F. Nepomuceno is a management consultant on strategy and investment.