One year after her murder, no justice for ‘Erin Brockovich’

Marlene Garcia-Esperat, a journalist/anti-graft crusader and a source for some of PCIJ's corruption stories, was killed in Sultan Kudarat by a lone assassin on March 24, 2005. A year after her death, the masterminds of her killing continue to elude justice.

ONE YEAR ago today, whistleblower-turned-journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat was gunned down in her home in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat. The murder took place in full view of her children. The killer: a lone assassin who casually greeted her good morning before shooting.

Today four men, one of them identified by the Esperat children as the gunman, are being prosecuted for the murder. But two officials of the regional office of the Department of Agriculture (DA) who allegedly plotted the killing have yet to be brought to court. Instead, they have eluded justice, with the charges against them dismissed and warrants for their arrest withdrawn, despite what the Esperat family and its lawyers say is strong evidence and testimony linking them to the murder.

Press groups are concerned about these developments. They say that the Esperat murder case is the first among 56 journalist murders since 1986 where the masterminds have been identified and evidence against them found. Groups like the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) hope that the conviction of the brains behind the Esperat murder would send a strong signal to those who wish to do violence to the media and help end the impunity with which the killers of journalists have been able to get away with their crimes.

Journalists’ assailants, according to the FFFJ, are usually local warlords or local government officials. The clout and power they wield shield them from the law, so that only assassins hired to carry out the killings are arrested and charged. Local and international media groups consider the Esperat killing a test case of the government’s sincerity and determination to stop the killings of journalists.

Esperat has been compared to the crusading real life and movie heroine, Erin Brockovich, for her daring wardrobe and her equally daring exposés of anomalies in government, particularly in the DA. Esperat was a chemist who was employed by the DA regional office in Tacurong. When she was gunned down last year, she was pursuing a graft case against several DA officials, including then undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, for dipping their fingers into a P432-million fertilizer fund.

Earlier this month, the Senate Committee on Agriculture found cause to charge Bolante for a similar scandal involving fertilizer funds. The Committee went as far as saying President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself should be held accountable since the funds were supposed to have financed her 2004 election campaign. Some of the evidence used by the Committee were provided by Esperat.

After her killing last year, which received a great deal of media attention, President Arroyo invited Esperat’s family to Malacañang and promised them she would do everything to hunt down the killers.

But justice has been slow in coming. To begin with, the investigation and trial of the case took place in Tacurong City, where the alleged masterminds–– Osmeña Montañer and Estrella Sabay, finance officer and accountant, respectively, of DA Region 12, whom Esperat had exposed and charged with graft and corruption — have good connections with the police and the courts.

Fearing a whitewash, Esperat’s family and lawyers asked the Supreme Court to move the trial to Cebu City. But in the first hearing of the case in Cebu last February 15, the court upheld the Tacurong court’s ruling, allowing the masterminds to keep the charges at bay.

“I want to remind President Arroyo of her promise to do everything to find the masterminds,” said Valmie Garcia-Mariveles, Esperat’s sister. “I sent her a letter when she visited Mindanao recently asking about her promise. I’ve been waiting for a response. There is still no response,” Mariveles added.

In April last year, in response to the Esperat case, Arroyo promised to crack down on the killers of journalists. She said then: “I salute these defenders of democracy and declare to those who perpetuate such crimes: Your days are numbered.”

Yet since then, the tables have been turned on journalists. The killings continue and journalists are being subject to harassment. The government itself has cracked down on the media, threatening to close down newspapers and broadcast stations and to sue journalists perceived to be critical of the administration.

For years, Esperat had been the resident whistleblower at the Department of Agriculture. As action officer, she filed several cases against DA officials for various offenses. She used to say that the DA was one of the most corrupt agencies in government, where officials could not resist dipping their hands into the office’s multibillion-peso budget. She also insisted that the office’s decentralized operations made it easy to commit graft and corruption undetected.

Esperat had filed cases against Montañer and Sabay years ago for allegedly pocketing DA funds and for covering up their misdeeds by among other things, burning down the DA building in Tacurong. The two were implicated in the Esperat killing by Army Sgt. Rowie Barua, Sabay’s former close-in security and one of those arrested and imprisoned for the murder.

In his affidavit, Barua said he was present when Montañer handed Sabay a down payment of P60,000, which represented half of the P120,000 they had put up to have Esperat killed. Barua also said it was he who contacted his friend Estanislao Bismanos about the job, and that Bismanos brought in Randy Grecia and Jerry Cabayug, the alleged gunman.

Based on Barua’s testimony, Esperat’s family has been asking the courts to include Montañer and Sabay in the murder charges, but these pleas, they say, are not being heard.

“Marlene was murdered twice,” said Atty Nena Santos, Esperat’s friend and lawyer, “first physically and the second time when they killed the case against the masterminds.”

On August 31, 2005, Tacurong City presiding judge Francis Palmones dismissed the murder charges against Montañer and Sabay. Palmones had based his decision on the resolution of a panel of Department of Justice prosecutors which included Tacurong Prosecutor Tocod Ronda, a close friend and associate of Montañer.

Palmones dismissed the charges on his last day as acting Presiding Judge of Tacurong City, right before he moved back to his post as Presiding Judge of Kidapawan City. Palmones’s decision to dismiss the case surprised Esperat’s family and lawyers, because there had been no hearing and no presentation of evidence at all. What was also surprising, said Santos, was that on August 17, Palmones submitted a comment to the Office of the Deputy Court Administrator favoring the transfer of the case to Cebu City. The Esperat family had then expected Palmones to refrain from making any more decisions on the case.

The case was moved to Cebu City on request of the Garcia-Esperat family and some media groups who feared a whitewash if it lingered in Tacurong. Prosecutors were pinning their hopes that the truth behind Esperat’s murder would surface once the case was moved to Cebu.

In Cebu, government prosecutors sought a Motion for Reconsideration in an effort to revive the charges against the two DA officials. But in the first hearing last February 15, Judge Eric Menchavez of the Cebu City Regional Trial Court sustained Palmones’s ruling.

“What we did was we filed motion opposing their motion for extension of time and a motion for reconsideration, which have already been dismissed. They are attempting to revive the motion for reconsideration which is already a prohibitive pleading,” said Atty. Bernardito Florido, a Cebu-based lawyer now representing Montañer and Sabay.

The prosecution is pushing for an immediate resolution to their second motion for reconsideration. They were pinning their hopes that a hearing on this matter would be held today, but it had to be postponed to March 27 because Florido would be unavailable on the original date.

Florido also denied allegations made by the prosecutors that Tacurong Judge Palmones had refused the prosecution access to documents. The prosecution said the lack of access to documents was the reason they were unable to submit a motion for reconsideration on time. But Florido said the case file of Esperat would belie the prosecution’s claim.

Esperat’s lawyer and sister say the Department of Justice (DOJ), at least its local personnel, played a role in foiling attempts to capture the masterminds. Early on, the case was handled by Atty. Tocod Ronda, a DOJ prosecutor who was known to be close to Montañer and who had represented him in previous cases. In June 2005, DOJ Sec. Raul Gonzales named Ronda to a panel of five prosecutors assigned to investigate the case. The panel issued a resolution dropping the murder charges against Montañer and Sabay and withdrawing the warrant for their arrest.

A new panel has since been reconstituted but even they are saying they had been disillusioned with the lack of progress in the case.