Defense asks Judge to inhibit self

THE petition for bail of the principal accused in the November 23, 2009 Massacre in Ampatuan town, Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. took on a new twist Wednesday, February 10. The counsel for the defense, Atty. Philip Sigfrid Fortun, today filed a motion seeking Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes of Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 to inhibit herself from the proceedings.

Instead of acting on the 23-page motion, which accused Reyes of ‘ineptness’ and ‘misconduct’ regarding the rules of evidence being followed in court, the 49-year old Judge asked the members of the prosecution panel representing the 57 victims of the massacre, including 32 journalists, to comment on the motion within 10 days.

The prosecution panel members and Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu of Buluan, Maguindanao, opposed Fortun’s motion that would effectively introduce a new judge as presiding officer over bail hearings that commenced in early January.

The prosecution side argued that it would be difficult for a new judge to make a fair evaluation of the earlier testimonies of the witnesses, as he or she would only have the transcripts to rely on.

According to Attorney Tranquil Salvador III, a bar reviewer and professor, there have been many cases where a new judge managed to issue a valid judgment, even as these were initially handled by another judge.  However, Salvador said that strategically, a judge should see and listen to the testimonies of the witnesses, as court transcripts may not always offer a complete picture of the facts at bar.

Salvador handles classes in Remedial Law Review, Civil Procedure, Evidence, and Criminal Procedure at the Ateneo de Manila University, Far Eastern University and the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.

The defense motion for the judge to inhibit herself from the case, Salvador said, cited grounds that fall under the category of reasons for a judge to excuse himself or herself from cases voluntarily.

It was standard procedure for the defense to ask the prosecution panel to comment on the motion. Such a procedure seeks to illustrate the court’s objectivity, before a judge decides on such a motion.

Thus far, the prosecution has presented seven out of 12 witnesses it has lined up for the bail hearings. The defense has cross-examined some of them.  The prosecution was scheduled to present more witnesses at the February 10 hearing held at the Officers’ Clubhouse in Camp Crame in Quezon City.

Judge Reyes, however, decided to postpone the hearing, in light of an appeal from the accused to defer the proceedings.

On Tuesday, February 9, the Justice Department had filed additional murder charges against 197 individuals including Ampatuan clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., other clan members, and their “conspirators” in the bloodbath that occurred in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

Judge would have been a Journalist

It remains to be seen whether Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes will restrain herself from further hearing the controversial case.  She took on the case involving one of Mindanao’s most powerful political clans but also eschewed the services of so many bodyguards.

A graduate of the Faculty of Civil Law in 1986 from the University of Santo Tomas, Reyes managed to finish law school while working for a government agency.  Before this, the lady judge had also aspired to become a television anchor, according to The Varsitarian, UST’s official student publication.

Her first job was with the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) in 1992. She rose from the ranks and became a public prosecutor with the Justice department until 2000.  Later she was appointed to the Municipal Trial Court, before moving on the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.

The public and the media have taken positively to Reyes, citing her fearlessness for not backing out when the case was re-raffled and ended up in her branch.  She is seen to be “in control,” unfazed by a flurry of questions, objections and counter-objections from both defense and prosecution sides.

Too, the lady judge does not seem to favor long pauses and timeouts. At one point in the hearings, she flatly declared that the court would not have a break, when the counsel for the defense suggested that he would go over some documents over lunch break. Reyes’s decision left the journalists dismayed as well; coverage guidelines required them to arrive very early at the hearing and a lunch break could have been quite a treat.

Reyes’s public image may be that of a no-frills, no-nonsense judge, but her staff at RTC Branch 221 tells the PCIJ that she is, in private, a kind-hearted boss.  For instance, amid complaints by some members of the court and the media about the performance of a court interpreter, Reyes did not budge. She stood by her staff, they said.

This much is clear though: everyone will watch and await the developments on the defense motion for Reyes to inhibit herself from the case.