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THIRD DIVISION

[G.R. No. 113788. October 17, 1997]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. NORLITO GERON y VILLANUEVA, Accused-Appellant.

D E C I S I O N

ROMERO, J.:

Here is yet another instance where the Court, aware as it is of the persistent calls of the public for the conviction of societys misfits, finds itself constrained to apply the maxim Better to free a guilty man than to punish the innocent. In a recent decision, the Court aptly stated: It is better to liberate a guilty man than to unjustly keep in prison one whose guilt has not been proved by the required quantum of evidence.1 Hence, despite the Courts support to ardent crusaders waging all out war against felons on the loose, when the Peoples evidence fail to indubitably prove the accuseds authorship of the crime of which he stands accused, then it is the Courts duty, and the accuseds right, to proclaim his innocence. Acquittal, therefore, is in order.

This is an appeal stemming from the prosecution and subsequent conviction of herein accused-appellant Norlito Geron y Villanueva under an information for robbery with homicide2 the accusatory portion of which reads:

That on or about the 29th day of April, 1990, at about 9:00 oclock in the evening, at Brgy. Pantay na Bata, Municipality of Tanauan, Province of Batangas, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above named accused armed with an axe and nylon cord with intent of (sic) gain and by means of violence and intimidation against persons, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously take, rob and carry away one (1) radio cassette,3 one (1) Walkman4 and cash money amounting [to] Thirty Thousand Pesos (P30,000.00), Philippine Currency, belonging to Teodora Valencia, to the damage and prejudice of the said owner in the aforementioned amount and that on the occasion of and by reason of said robbery, the said accused, with intent to kill, with treachery and evident premeditation, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously attack, assault and hit with the said axe and tied with the said nylon cord Teodora Valencia y Valencia and Martin Valencia y Vicencio, which directly caused their instantan[e]ous death.5chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

A plea of not guilty to the said charge having been entered by the accused at arraignment, trial ensued. The prosecution presented seven (7) witnesses.

Evidence for the Prosecution

First to testify for the State was Juan Valencia, Teodora Valencias husband and father of Martin Valencia, who, in his sworn statement6 and answers on direct and cross-examination in court,7 declared that the accused worked for his wife and son at Barangay Pantay na Bata three months prior to the incident. Although he was not with his family at the time, he was convinced that the accused committed the crime because only the latter had access to their house. This belief was reenforced when he saw items allegedly belonging to the victims in accuseds possession upon his arrest and detention in jail. He identified these items as one radio cassette (hereinafter the radio) and a Walkman (hereinafter the cassette player) whose photographs were marked for exhibit by the prosecution.8 Likewise missing, according to him, were money and pieces of jewelry but the records failed to show if these were ever recovered from the accused.

PO3 Eduardo Lirio of the Philippine National Police (PNP) station in Tanauan, Batangas, whose testimony9 was corroborated by Capt. Tomas Lirio told the court that he and Capt. Lirio rushed to Barangay Pantay na Bata after receiving a report regarding the incident at 6:30 oclock in the morning of April 30, 1990. At the crime scene, they found the lifeless body of Teodora who appeared to have been strangled and fatally wounded at the nape, as well as that of Martin, who likewise sustained wounds on his head. They also discovered after further investigation an axe and a nylon cord10 believed to have been used in killing the victims. This witness acknowledged his awareness that some items inside the victims house were missing as he was informed by Juan Valencia himself about it and that the accused surrendered a radio and a cassette player upon his arrest. Other possible motives in the commission of the crime were explored but they concluded that it was a case of robbery in view of the missing items retrieved from the accused.

Teodoras niece Melecia A. Vicencio recalled having encountered the accused at about 4:30 oclock in the morning of April 30, 1990, when she boarded a jeepney driven by Anselmo Trinidad at Barangay Pantay na Matanda, Tanauan, Batangas. The accused whom she only knew by face was already sitting at the rear end of the vehicle carrying a chicken, a black bag and a black-colored radio which she identified as the same radio belonging to one of the victims and offered in evidence by the prosecution. She also remembered very well that during their trip, accused seemed perturbed and showed signs of fear (lagi siyang nakalingon sa hulihan ng jeep na aming sinasakyan na sa aking tingin ay parang may kinatatakutan). After a while, accused hastily got off at a bus stop without bothering to claim his change.11chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Jeepney driver Anselmo Trinidad supported Vicencios testimony in his sworn statement before the police authorities12 where he declared having learned about the incident after his return trip to Alabang and that he also knew the accused as Teodoras helper. He positively identified the accused in court and the radio the latter was carrying while on board his jeepney.13chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Patrolman Avelino Manalo, a nephew of Teodora and accuseds former employer, related to the court that he was informed of the victims death when Teodoras brother, Cresencio Vicencio, came to him at about 6:00 oclock in the morning of April 30, 1990. Since the victims house was only a few meters away, both of them dashed to the place and immediately proceeded thereafter to the Tanauan police station where he allegedly got orders from the station commander to arrest the accused. With one Sgt. Celedonio Alcantara, he then went to the Batangas pier and, having found the accused lying in the upper deck of a boat listening to a cassette player, apprehended him. Seized from the accused were a cassette player and a radio found beside him, both of which were later identified as the same articles photographed and shown in Exhibits C and C-1.14chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Finally, the Municipal Health Officer, Dr. Priscilla Guzman, testified15 on the death certificates she issued for Teodora Valencia16 and Martin Valencia,17 as well as post-mortem reports on their corpses. Her findings indicated that Teodora sustained injuries consisting of hematoma, occiput; skull fracture, post-auricular right; hacking wound, ear left; and hematoma around the neck. Martin, on the other hand, had a stab wound, occipital; hacking wound from right nasal bridge extending up to the right eye; and hacking wound at the right side of the mouth. This witness calculated that the victims could have died at around 8:30 oclock in the evening of April 29, 1990.

Evidence for the Defense

The accused had an entirely different version of the incident.18 He pointed to Patrolman Avelino Manalo who allegedly harbored a grudge against the victims regarding a piece of land. According to him, he knew about this because he had twice been prevented by Manalo from tilling a portion of the victims farm on the ground that the same was his.

Against this background, accused narrated that on the night of April 29, 1990, he and the two victims were about to sleep when the door suddenly swung open and Manalo, without a word, hacked Teodora at the nape with an axe. Horrified, he scampered for safety in the kitchen and hid between two jars (tapayan), both of which were two and a half feet high. Manalos two other companions gave chase but fortunately, they failed to find him because the kitchen was dark. Frustrated, the assailants turned to Martin who remained standing beside his bed. While in that position, Manalo mercilessly delivered the fatal blow on the defenseless victim, thus, causing his instantaneous death.

After the assault, Manalo ordered his two companions to search the house, particularly Teodoras room. The two immediately obeyed but reported that their efforts were fruitless. The trio then left the place leaving behind the murder weapon. After assuring himself that the assailants were gone, the accused hurriedly took his bag and left the house without ascertaining whether the victims were still alive. Neither did he report the incident to the police because he knew Manalo was also assigned to the Tanauan police station.

Upon leaving the house, accused proceeded to the poblacion. Fearing that he might encounter the killers of Teodora and Martin, he decided to wait till daybreak, when he took a jeepney to Tanauan and then a bus to Batangas pier where he planned to board a boat bound for Mindoro as a stowaway. However, Manalo and Alcantara nabbed him even before the boat could leave the pier. From there, Manalo and two other companions brought him to a place called Sambat where he was allegedly maltreated by his captors for four days until he was taken by Maj. Cesar Valencia, another son of the deceased Teodora to the Municipal Building. Despite his transfer, Manalo and Alcantara continued maltreating him whenever Major Valencia was not around. He was even electrocuted in order to implicate a certain Randy as the perpetrator of the crime.

When asked why he had in his possession at the time of his arrest, a cassette player and a radio belonging to Martin, accused explained that these were already in his bag even prior to the incident because Martin told him that if someone should steal their cow, he might fail to notice it above the din of the radio. He has since had the items in his possession.

When presented by the defense, Major Valencia testified that he knew that the accused worked for the victims because he was informed of this fact eight months before the incident. He likewise admitted having requested the accuseds transfer of detention and that he filed a motion to implead Manalo as an additional accused to clear doubts on the latters possible participation in the crime. The records reveal, however, that subsequent investigation against Manalo was closed and terminated for lack of evidence.19chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

After trial, the court a quo rendered the appealed decision20 dated November 25, 1993, finding the accused guilty of the crime charged and, accordingly, sentenced him as follows:

WHEREFORE, Norlito Geron is hereby found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of robbery with double homicide and is sentenced to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua; to indemnify the heirs of Teodora Valencia in the amount of P50,000.00 and the heirs of Martin Valencia in the amount of P50,000.00; and to pay the costs of suit.

SO ORDERED.

To support the conviction, the trial court relied on what it believed were inculpatory circumstantial evidence which, when taken together, led to the inescapable conclusion that the accused was indeed the author of the crime, thus:

On the basis of the evidence that accused Norlito Geron was at the house of the victims Teodora Valencia and Martin Valencia, at the time they were axed to death, as he himself admitted; that he took with him articles, consisting of a radio casette and a radio walkman, which were taken from the house of the victims; that he fled [from] the scene of the crime and boarded a boat on his way to Mindoro; that when arrested he was lying on the upper deck of the boat nonchalantly listening to the radio attached to his ears; that, while he testified that he had no money and was on board the boat only as a stowaway, the driver and a passenger in the jeep he rode on his way away from the scene of the crime, declared that he paid his fare and did not bother to get his change; that his being in the upper deck of the boat shows that he was a paying passenger and not a stowaway; and that he did not even bother to report to anyone the dastardly and brutal slaying of the victims, all point to his criminal involvement and participation both in the slaying of his employers, Teodora Valencia and Martin Valencia, and that the motive was robbery as shown by his taking away of two radios, which he admitted belonged to Martin, and the ransacking of the cabinet in the room of Teodora Valencia.

The evidence is sufficient for a finding of guilt by circumstantial evidence. x x x. (Emphasis supplied).

We cannot concur with the findings of the trial court.

Doubtless, it is not only by direct evidence that an accused may be convicted of the crime for which he is charged.21 There is in fact consensus that resort to circumstantial evidence is essential since to insist on direct testimony would, in many cases, result in setting felons free and deny proper protection to the community.22 However, certain guidelines have been evolved for circumstantial evidence to be acceptable. Like a tapestry made up of strands which create a pattern when interwoven,23 a judgment of conviction based on circumstantial evidence can be upheld only if the circumstances proved constitute an unbroken chain which leads to one fair and reasonable conclusion which points to the accused, to the exclusion of all others, as the guilty person.24 All the circumstances must be consistent with each other, consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and at the same time inconsistent with the hypothesis that he is innocent, and with every other rationale except that of guilt.25

Upon a close scrutiny of the records and bearing in mind the standards set forth above, the Court is of the view that the circumstantial evidence proffered by the prosecution, contrary to the trial courts position, do not show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused indeed perpetrated the crime of which he stands charged. The supposed string of circumstances relied upon by the court a quo to secure a conviction consists of the following:

(1) Accused was present at the crime scene;

(2) Accused had in his possession articles belonging to the victims at the time he was apprehended;

(3) Accused fled from the crime scene and boarded a boat bound for Mindoro;

(4) Accused was at the upper deck of the boat when arrested;

(5) Accused paid his jeepney fare and did not bother to claim his change; and

(6) Accused never reported the incident to anyone.

The above circumstances, as will be shown below, point to no inference exclusively consistent with the guilt of the accused.

First, the mere presence of the accused at the locus criminis and his possession of certain items belonging to the victims, while it may have pointed the finger of suspicion at him, cannot be solely interpreted to mean that he committed the robbery and the attendant killings. His presence at the victims house was not unusual as he was serving there as their household helper. Along the same line, accuseds unrefuted explanation that Martin himself placed the radio and cassette player in his bag prior to the incident was equally plausible. It was neither extraordinary nor unlikely that Martin could have allowed the accused to use and keep them as these items could have been easily lent. At any rate, the mere possession by the accused of items allegedly stolen, without more, cannot conduce to a single conclusion that robbery indeed took place or at least was the primary motive for the killings. In the absence of positive and indubitable evidence showing unlawful taking by the accused by means of violence against or intimidation of persons, the prosecution cannot rely with certitude on the fact of possession alone. The Courts application of the presumption that a person found in possession of the personal effects belonging to a person robbed and killed is considered the author of the aggression, the death of the person, as well as the robbery committed, has been invariably limited to cases where such possession is either unexplained or that the proffered explanation is rendered implausible in view of independent evidence inconsistent thereto.

For instance, in People v. Fulinara,26 we applied the presumption to that case because the accused therein had two irreconcilable versions as to how the car belonging to a victim of kidnapping was subsequently found with him. More than that, there was independent testimonial evidence presented by the prosecution positively identifying the accused and describing in detail how the seizure of the victim took place with his participation.

Similarly, we enunciated the same rationale in People v. Corpuz,27 also a case of robbery with homicide, in view of the fact that accused was unable to explain the incriminating evidence consisting of the victims bag and shirt found in his possession after the incident and that there were also other circumstances independent of the fact of said possession upon which his guilt was predicated.

Since the above factual considerations do not obtain in the case at bar, we can find no compelling reason to arrive at a similar conclusion here.

Moreover, we have underscored time and again that in cases of robbery with homicide, the taking of personal property with intent to gain must itself be established beyond reasonable doubt. Conclusive evidence proving the physical act of asportation by the accused must be presented by the prosecution.28 It must be shown that the original criminal design of the culprit was robbery and the homicide was perpetrated with a view to the consummation of the robbery by reason or on the occasion of the robbery.29chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Thus, in People v. Parel,30 a case involving a similar challenge to the sufficiency of circumstantial evidence against the accused, we declared emphatically that:

To sustain a conviction for the complex crime of robbery with homicide, which is primarily an offense against property, it is essential that the robbery itself be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Proof of the homicide alone is not sufficient to support a conviction for the crime of [robbery with homicide]. The taking with intent to gain of personal property belonging to another by means of violence against or intimidation of person or using force upon things are the essential elements of robbery. There is robbery with homicide when by reason or on the occasion of a robbery with the use of violence against or intimidation of persons, the crime of homicide shall have been committed.

In the instant case, two things must be borne in mind: first, there was no eyewitness either to the robbery or to the homicide; and second, none of the things already stolen was ever recovered. If there was any proof to support the charge, the same was entirely circumstantial in character. xxx.

As there was no eyewitness to the alleged robbery, and although the evidence already showed that at the time of the killing the money in the bag of the deceased was missing, it cannot be presumed that there was robbery. It is essential to prove intent to rob. This necessarily includes evidence to the effect that the accused carried away the effects or personalty of the deceased. In the instant case, there is absence of positive proof appellant intended to rob the deceased or that he was the one who carried away the money belonging to the victim. His mere presence at the locus criminis is not sufficient to implicate him. [Emphasis supplied].

Second, accuseds alleged flight from the crime scene, his failure to immediately report the gruesome incident and the fact that he was seen apparently perturbed while on board a jeepney in the early morning of April 30, 1990, are equally susceptible of interpretation which would be consistent with his innocence. While we adhere to the rule that flight is competent evidence to indicate guilt, its application, however, is qualified by either the presence or absence of sufficient explanation therefor. We have ruled that flight, when adequately explained, cannot be attributed to ones consciousness of guilt.31 In the case at bar, accused himself presented an unrebutted explanation that he fled, not because of guilt for having perpetrated a crime, but rather for fear that the suspects who knew he witnessed the dastardly act would run after him.32 Considering that the accused in so testifying was subjected to the usual rigors of cross examination by the prosecution, we have no reason to doubt its veracity.

Third, the trial courts intimation that the accused indeed robbed the victims in view of his ability to pay his boat fare to the extent of foregoing his change when he took a jeepney likewise deserves little consideration. These circumstances, even if taken together with the rest, do not conclusively demonstrate that the money he used were proceeds of an unlawful taking. In fact, the existence of the Thirty Thousand Pesos (P30,000.00) and pieces of jewelry alleged to have been lost and stolen by the accused was not adequately established by the prosecution. Furthermore, it is preposterous to think that the only way the accused could have paid for his fare was through stolen money. The records do not reveal that the accused has been penniless. From what we have gathered, it appears that accused was employed as a household helper of the victims, hence, we cannot reasonably discount the possibility that he had money of his own.

All told, whatever apparent weakness is discernible in the accuseds defense is no reason for us to sustain his conviction. The established doctrine adhered to consistently by the Court is that the conviction of the accused must rest on the strength of the prosecution and not on the weakness of the defense.33 As a general rule, the doctrine of reasonable doubt applies only to criminative, not exculpatory facts; accused is not required to establish matters in mitigation or defense beyond a reasonable doubt, nor in most jurisdiction, is he required to establish the truth of such matters by a preponderance of evidence, or even to a reasonable probability. It is sufficient if he satisfies the court of their truth by credible and preponderating evidence.34 The truth is that it is not even necessary for him to explain, on some theory consistent with innocence, any fact or circumstance relied on by the prosecution.35chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Furthermore, the circumstances proffered by the prosecution and relied upon by the trial court, albeit taken to be established and credible, only go so far as to create a suspicion that the accused probably perpetrated the crime charged. But suspicion alone is insufficient, the required quantum of evidence being proof beyond reasonable doubt. Hence the saying: The sea of suspicion has no shore, and the court that embarks upon it is without rudder or compass.36chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

WHEREFORE, the instant appeal is hereby GRANTED and the decision of Judge Flordelis Ozaeta Navarro in Criminal Case No. 1890 dated November 25, 1993, is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accused-appellant Norlito Geron y Villanueva is hereby ACQUITTED of all charges against him on ground of reasonable doubt. Consequently, let the accused be immediately released from his place of confinement unless there is reason to detain him further for any other legal or valid cause. No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.

Narvasa, C.J., (Chairman), Melo, Francisco, and Panganiban, JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


1 People v. Esmaquilan, 255 SCRA 289 (1996).

2 Erroneously designated as robbery with double homicide. The multiplicity of the victims slain is appreciated only as an aggravating circumstance but does not affect at all the characterization of this special complex crime as robbery with homicide. Cf. People v. Timple, 237 SCRA 52 (1994); People v. Bracamonte, 257 SCRA 380 (1996).

3 Actually an ordinary radio and not a radio cassette since the equipment does not really have a cassette compartment. Cf. TSN, February 6, 1992, p. 4.

4 Actually a ProLine cassette player but mislabeled as a Walkman which is a Sony cassette player.

5 Rollo, pp. 7-8.

6 Exhibit A, Records, p. 3.

7 TSN, January 30, 1992, pp. 3-11; TSN, February 6, 1992, pp. 3-7.

8 Exhibit "C" and "C-1," Records pp. 62-63.

9 Exhibit D, Records, p. 6.

10 Marked as Exhibits E and E-1 for the prosecution.

11 Exhibit F, Records, p. 5; TSN, February 10, 1992, pp. 4-9.

12 Exhibit I, Records, p. 4.

13 TSN, April 6, 1992, pp. 3-9.

14 TSN, May 7, 1992, pp. 2-6.

15 TSN, February 27, 1992, pp. 3-7.

16 Exhibit B, Records, p. 9.

17 Exhibit B-1, Records, p. 10.

18 TSN, August 6, 1992, pp. 3-21; TSN, August 10, 1992, pp. 3-22; TSN, November 16, 1992, pp. 2-10; TSN, December 7, 1992, pp. 2-3.

19 TSN, May 20, 1993, pp. 4-16.

20 Rollo, pp. 24-31.

21 Section 4, Rule 133, Revised Rules of Court.

22 People v. Ramos, 240 SCRA 191 (1995); See also Vicente V. Francisco, VII THE REVISED RULES OF COURT IN THE PHILIPPINES 711 (1973).

23 People v. Cabrera, 241 SCRA 28 (1995).

24 People v. Maqueda, 242 SCRA 565 (1995).

25 People v. Genobia, 234 SCRA 699 (1994); People v. Casingal, 243 SCRA 37 (1995); People v. Parel, G. R. No. 108733, September 16, 1996; Pecho v. People of the Philippines and Sandiganbayan, G. R. No. 111399, September 27, 1996; People v. Grefaldia, G. R. No. 121787, June 17, 1997.

26 247 SCRA 28 (1995).

27 240 SCRA 203 (1995).

28 People v. Martinado, 214 SCRA 712 (1992).

29 People v. Datingginoo, 223 SCRA 331 (1993); People v. Alay-ay, 224 SCRA 62 (1993).

30 See note 24, supra. Cf. also Francisco, supra, at pp. 679-680: The law imposes upon the state in a criminal prosecution the burden of proving the case set forth in the information in all its material parts, beyond a reasonable doubt, and the trial judge in his analysis of the evidence must find, in order to convict, that all the elements of the crime charged have been established by such a degree of proof; otherwise, it is their duty to acquit the defendant. Each and every material and necessary fact upon which a conviction depends must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. When a specific intent or guilty knowledge is an element which the state must prove, it is incumbent upon the state to produce direct or circumstantial proof, showing, beyond reasonable doubt, that such intent or knowledge existed in the mind of the defendant. In the case of circumstantial evidence, each link in the chain of circumstances ordinarily must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

31 People v. Agustin, 246 SCRA 673 (1995).

32 TSN, August 10, 1992, pp. 6-7.

33 People v. Sandagon, 233 SCRA 108 (1994); People v. Eroles, 226 SCRA 554 (1993); People v. Minano, 220 SCRA 681 (1993); People v. Ventura, 215 SCRA 789 (1992); People v. Cruz, 215 SCRA 339 (1992); People v. Garcia, 215 SCRA 349 (1992).

34 23 C. J. S. 195-196.

35 Francisco, supra., at p. 673 citing Horn v. Terr., 8 Okl. 52, P. 846.

36 Id., at p. 679.




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