G.R. No. 214452, February 22, 2016


Bernardo Cayabyab y Bautista (Bernardo), Ferdinand Bautista (Ferdinand) and Rommel Valdez (Rommel) (accused-appellants) challenge in this appeal the Decision[1] promulgated on January 24, 2014 by the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 05410, which affirmed the Judgment[2] of conviction for Murder rendered against them on February 28, 2012 by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of San Carlos City, Pangasinan, Branch 57, in Criminal Case No. SCC-3837.

The trial ensued with respect only to the accused-appellants because the other accused, Christopher Zarate (Christopher), remained at-large and cannot be located.[3]

Through the testimony of Nicanor Junio (Nicanor), the prosecution established that on September 6, 2002, at about 6:30 p.m., Nicanor was in their house in Pangdel, Bayambang, Pangasinan when his aunt requested him to follow his uncle, the victim Loreto Junio (Loreto), from the place where the latter gambled. On his way to the said place, he saw Christopher and the accused-appellants, all carrying firearms, on the road standing under the camachile tree near the Pangdel River. Then, he saw Bernardo fire his gun twice in the air, and he heard the others say in agreement, "Let's just wait for him, he will be coming.'' Soon after, when he saw Loreto coming, Christopher and the accused-appellants blocked the way and poked their guns on Loreto. Without warning, Christopher shot Loreto thrice. As the victim fell down on the ground, Christopher shot him once more, turned his face down and took his wallet. Thereafter, the accused-appellants left and ran towards the dike. Nicanor witnessed the whole incident while he was hiding under the bamboo grooves that were abundant with talahib about 10 meters away from the scene and the place was being lighted by a white bulb. After the accused-appellants left, Nicanor hurriedly went home and told his cousins that Loreto was shot. He then helped in bringing Loreto to the hospital. Within an hour after arriving thereat, Loreto was pronounced dead.[4]

For their defense, the accused-appellants denied the charges against them and invoked the defense of alibi. Ferdinand alleged that on the date and time of the incident, he was in Karuhatan, Valenzuela City, and had actually been staying there with his sister since July 2002. His sister corroborated his testimony and said that she saw her brother on the night of the incident inside their house in Valenzuela City when she arrived home from work.[5]As corroborated by the testimony of his wife, Bernardo alleged that he was just watching television with his wife and son inside their house when they learned about the incident. He said that he was being implicated in the murder charge because the prosecution witness, Mercado Pinto (Mercado), resented him.[6]

Rommel similarly denied the charge against him and alleged that he had been staying in Echague, Isabela for good since April 2, 2000. He further said that he does not even know the victim or any of his co-accused until he met them in the Provincial Jail of Pangasinan on January 4, 2009. Flis wife confirmed his statement and claimed that his husband never left Isabela at the time of the incident as they were busy farming since it was harvest season.[7]

After trial, the RTC rendered judgment on February 28, 2012 convicting the accused-appellants of the crime of murder qualified by evident premeditation and sentenced them to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua, without the possibility of parole. They were ordered to indemnify the heirs of Loreto with P75,000.00 as civil indemnity, P50,000.00 as moral damages; P52,000.00 as reimbursement of incurred expenses during the wake and funeral, and P50,000.00 as expenses incurred in securing the legal services.

Upon review, on January 24, 2014, the CA dismissed the appeal and affirmed the conviction of the accused-appellants. The CA, however, found that the killing was qualified with treachery and aggravated by evident premeditation. There was also a modification as to the award of damages: P75,000.00 as civil indemnity, P75,000.00 as moral damages, P30,000.00 as exemplary damages, P30,000.00 as actual damages, and P50,000.00 as attorney's fees and interest at the rate of six percent per annum is imposed on all damages awarded from the date of finality of judgment until fully paid. Hence, the accused-appellants appealed their conviction to this Court.

The appeal lacks merit.

The thrust of the accused-appellants' argument centers on the credibility of the prosecution witness Nicanor. In order to escape liability, they cite questionable circumstances in the testimony of Nicanor, such as: (a) he did not immediately reveal the identity of the assailants to the police officers; (b) he did not actually see the faces of the assailants; (c) the light coming from a white bulb was belied by the ocular inspection conducted on March 15, 2004; and (d) he was the one who brought Loreto to the hospital.[8]

A review of the records of this case showed that the RTC did not err in giving credence to the testimony of Nicanor since he saw the entire event transpire before him, from the victim's emergence from the road until the accused-appellants' escape, as he was merely 10 m away from the scene of the incident. The defense cannot diminish the value of Nicanor's testimony on the ground that he failed to immediately report what he witnessed and reveal the identity of the assailants to the investigating officers for fear of reprisal. The Court has already settled that the delay in identifying the accused-appellants is justified as there can be no standard form of human behavior when a person is confronted with a startling and frightening occurrence that creates emotional stress.[9]

Nevertheless, Nicanor was able to identify the accused-appellants because he has sufficient familiarity with them; Christopher was his classmate, Bernardo and Ferdinand were his friends and neighbors, while Rommel was often seen by him in Pangdel.[10] Moreso, Nicanor has not been shown to have been inspired by any ill motive to incriminate and testify against the accused-appellants.

The CA aptly rebutted the accused-appellants' claim that the ocular inspection conducted on March 15, 2004 revealed that the place where the incident happened had no electricity, contrary to Nicanor's claim that there was light coming from a white bulb. A reading of the transcript taken during the said ocular inspection showed that there was no lamp or electrical connection. However, a certain Jose Beltran, a bystander who was present at the time of the inspection and has long been residing in the area and in fact grew up there, supported Nicanor's claim that at the time of the incident, there was indeed a lamp at a caimito tree but such tree has since been cut down.[11]

The accused-appellants contend that Nicanor's testimony that he was the one who brought Loreto to the hospital deviated from the testimony of prosecution witness Mercado. A further reading of the transcript would reveal that there was no discrepancy between their testimonies; what Nicanor narrated before the trial court was that he took Loreto to the hospital, while Mercado said that he and his companions were bound towards the scene of the crime and not yet to the hospital. Even so, the alleged minor discrepancies in Nicanor's testimony only refer to trivial matters and do not affect his credibility as the essence of his statement was clear that he saw the accused-appellants waylay and shoot Loreto. In assessing the credibility of Nicanor, the factual findings of the trial court are accorded the highest degree of respect and are conclusive and binding on this Court especially when affirmed by the appellate court.

The qualifying aggravating circumstance of treachery was correctly appreciated by the CA. In this case, treachery is evident from the fact that the victim could not have been aware of the imminent peril to his life. Loreto was obviously caught off guard, unprepared for the sudden, unexpected and unprovoked attack on his person when the accused-appellants surprisingly blocked his path, shot him at close range then swiftly ran away. The sudden and unexpected attack adopted by the accused-appellants deprived Loreto of any chance to defend or to retaliate. He had no foreboding of any danger, threat or harm upon his life at the said time, place and occasion. There was treachery not only because of the suddenness of the attack but also because of the absence of an opportunity on Loreto's part to repel the attack. Without a doubt, the killing was attended by treachery.

The appreciation of evident premeditation must also be upheld. The prosecution had established that Ferdinand and Bernardo had already expressed their desire to kill Loreto on two separate instances: first, sometime in May 2002, and the second, in August 2002. Apparently, Loreto's statement insinuating that Ferdinand and Bernardo were the ones who stole his goat did not suit well with the latter.[12] Indeed, the manner by which the killing was executed appears to be thought of, and even if they were not the ones who fired the fatal shots, their actions indicated the presence of conspiracy.

With regard to the appreciation of the special aggravating circumstance of use of an unlicensed firearm, the same must be applied against the accused-appellants in the instant case since it was properly alleged in the information filed against them before the RTC and proven during the trial.

Thus, considering all the above-mentioned facts, the accused-appellants' conviction of the crime of murder must stand.

Following the new jurisprudential ruling in People v. Gambao,[13] where the penalty for the crime committed is death which, however, cannot be imposed, the Court increases the amounts of indemnity and damages to be imposed as follows: P100,000.00 as civil indemnity; P100,000.00 as moral damages; and P100,000.00 as exemplary damages. The Court likewise affirms the attorney's fees of P50,000.00 awarded by the RTC as it was expressly provided on record that the heirs of the victim actually incurred such expense.[14] Attorney's fees are in the concept of actual or compensatory damages allowed under the circumstances provided for in Article 2208 of the Civil Code, and sufficient evidence must be shown to support its grant.

WHEREFORE, the instant appeal is DENIED. The Decision dated January 24, 2014 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 05410 is AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION that the amounts of indemnity and damages to be imposed are as follows: P100,000.00 as civil indemnity; P100,000.00 as moral damages; and P100,000.00 as exemplary damages. (Jardeleza, J., no part in view of his participation in the Office of the Solicitor General; Bersamin, J., designated Additional Member per Raffle dated October 22, 2014.)

[1] Penned by Associate Justice Franchito N. Diamante with Associate Justices Celia C. Librea-Leagogo and Zenaida T. Galapate-Laguilles concurring; CA rollo, pp. 119-135.

[2] Rendered by Presiding Judge Renato D. Pinlac; id. at 66-85.

[3] Id. at 120.

[4 ] Id. at 120-121, 128.

[5] Id. at 121.

[6] Id. at 121-122.

[7] Id. at 122.

[8] Id. at 123.

[9] See People v. Dumadag, 667 Phil. 664, 675-676, (2011); People v. Villarino, 628 Phil. 269, 284 (2010).

[10] CA rollo, p. 127.

11] Id. at 128.

[12] Id. at 130.

[13] People v. Gambao, G.R. No. 172707, October 1, 2013, 706 SCRA 508.

[14] CA rollo, p. 133.

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