THE CRIMINAL CASE against the main suspects in the Gerry Ortega murder struck a snag after the Court of Appeals reversed the recommendation of government prosecutors to indict former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario for the crime.
The Court of Appeals Special 10th Division said there were glaring procedural lapses on the part of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
The CA was acting on a petition filed by Mario Reyes questioning the decision of DOJ prosecutors to indict him and his brother for the Ortega murder. The CA ruling does not touch on the merits of the murder case against the two main suspects.
In a ruling penned by Associate Justice Angelita Gacutan, the CA noted that a special panel of DOJ prosecutors had dismissed the murder complaint against the Reyes brothers on June 8, 2011.
Ortega’s wife Patty immediately filed an appeal to overturn the decision.
Instead of acting on the finding and the appeal, however, Secretary de Lima immediately created a second panel of prosecutors that overturned the first panel’s decision and indicted the two brothers.
The CA said De Lima acted with grave abuse of authority when she immediately created a second panel to reinvestigate the Ortega case. By doing so, De Lima had simply ignored both the first panel’s findings, and even the appeal filed by Ortega’s widow.
The CA said De Lima should have acted on the first panel’s findings; as Secretary of Justice, she had full authority to affirm or reverse the panel’s recommendation anyway. She did not, however, have the authority to ignore it.
Thus, De Lima should now review the first panel’s findings and decide accordingly, the CA said.
“The Secretary of Justice should act on it, and she could either modify, reverse, or affirm the resolution of the first panel of prosecutor when she resolves the said petition for review,” the CA said. “While this court is in accord with the power of the Secretary of Justice to conduct investigation and reinvestigation, this court is also cognizant that in the exercise of such power and task, as mandated by law, there are specific rules of procedures to be adhered to by all concerned.”
In fact, the CA pointed out that since De Lima had not acted on either the first panel’s recommendations or Ortega’s appeal, “it is safe to assume that (they are) still waiting resolution by her office.”
“Since at this precise moment this finding by the said panel of prosecutors has not yet been reversed, affirmed or modified by public respondent Secretary of Justice, such finding is still valid. For all intents and purposes, therefore, (the Reyes brothers) should not have been indicted for the crime of murder,” The CA said.
Media groups lamented the CA decision, saying it sends the wrong message both to journalists and those who would want to harm them. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines says the decision sends the signal that journalists could be killed with impunity. Lawyers for the Ortega family in turn said the CA ruling does not absolve the Reyes brothers of the murder case; all it does is raise legal and procedural issues that have nothing to do with the merits of the case.
The Reyes brothers were charged with masterminding the murder of Ortega in Puerto Princesa City in January 2011. Ortega was a crusading radio broadcaster and environmentalist who was also a fierce critic of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his handling of funds derived from the Malampaya Gas Project off Palawan. The brothers were tagged as the masterminds of the murder by the gunman and his accomplices, who were arrested immediately after the killing.
The case is now pending before the Puerto Princesa Regional Trial Court Branch 52. Arrest warrants were issued against the Reyes brothers last year; however, the brothers were reported to have fled to another country before the warrants could be served.