CASE DIGEST: People v. Sergio (G.R. No. 240053; the Mary Jane Veloso case)

FACTS: Mary Jane Veloso, Maria Cristina P. Sergio (Cristina), and Julius L. Lacanilao (Julius) were friends and neighbors in Talavera, Nueva Ecija. Taking advantage of her dire situation and susceptibility, Cristina and Julius offered Mary Jane a job as a domestic helper in Malaysia. Cristina gave Mary Jane her plane ticket as well as a luggage to bring on her trip. She then asked Cristina why the luggage was heavy but the latter simply replied that because it was new. The luggage was the same bag she used on her trip to Indonesia. It was only after she was apprehended at the airport when Mary Jane realized that it contained prohibited drugs.

The Philippine Government requested the Indonesian Government to suspend the scheduled execution of Mary Jane. It informed the Indonesian Government that the recruiters and traffickers of Mary Jane were already in police custody, and her testimony is vital in the prosecution of Cristina and Julius.

The Indonesian authorities however imposed the following conditions relative to the taking of Mary Jane's testimony, viz.:

(a) Mary Jane shall remain in detention in Yogyakarta, Indonesia;

(b) No cameras shall be allowed;

(c) The lawyers of the parties shall not be present; and

(d) The questions to be propounded to Mary Jane shall be in writing. 

Thereafter, the State filed a "Motion for Leave of Court to Take the Testimony of Complainant Mary Jane Veloso by Deposition Upon Written Interrogatories. " It averred that the taking of Mary Jane's testimony through the use of deposition upon written interrogatories is allowed under Rule 23 of the Revised Rules of Court because she is out of the country and will not be able to testify personally before the court due to her imprisonment.

Cristina and Julius objected to the motion asserting that the deposition should be made before and not during the trial. The depositions under Rules 23 and 25 of the Rules of Court are not designed to replace the actual testimony of the witness in open court and the use thereof is confined only in civil cases. Also, they argued that such method of taking testimony will violate their right to confront the witness, Mary Jane, or to meet her face to face as provided under Section 14(2) of the 1987 Constitution. Finally, they claimed that the prosecution's reliance on the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases and the Judicial Affidavit Rule was misplaced because the affiants therein were still subject to cross-examination.

The RTC granted the motion. CA reversed the RTC.

ISSUES:

[1] Does Rule 23 apply to criminal cases?

[2] Will allowing deposition of Mary Jane violate the right of the accused to confront the witnesses?

HELD: 

On Substantive Matters

The OSG asserts that the presence of extraordinary circumstances, i.e., Mary Jane's conviction by final judgment and her detention in a prison facility in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, while awaiting execution by firing squad; the grant by the Indonesian President of an indefinite reprieve in view of the ongoing legal proceedings against Cristina and Julius in the Philippines; and the conditions attached to the reprieve particularly that Mary Jane should remain in confinement in Indonesia, and any question propounded to her must only be in writing, are more than enough grounds to have allowed the suppletory application of Rule 23 of the Rules of Court.

The OSG's contentions are meritorious.

The Court cannot subscribe to the pronouncement by the appellate court that the State failed to show compelling reasons to justify the relaxation of the Rules and the suppletory application of Rule 23. The Court also cannot agree to its declaration that the constitutional rights of Cristina and Julius to confront a witness will be violated since safeguards were set in place by the trial court precisely to protect and preserve their rights.

Section 15, Rule 119 of the Rules of Court
is inapplicable in the instant case

Under Section 15, Rule 119 of the revised Rules of Criminal Procedure , in order for the testimony of the prosecution witness be taken before the court where the case is being heard, it must be shown that the said prosecution witness is either: (a) too sick or infirm to appear at the trial as directed by the order of the court, or; (b) has to leave the Philippines with no definite date of returning.

Surely, the case of Mary Jane does not fall under either category. Therefore, a liberal interpretation of the Rules should be allowed. We should not silence Mary Jane and deny her and the People of their right to due process by presenting their case against the said accused. By the CA's belief that it was rendering justice to the respondents, it totally forgot that it in effect impaired the rights of Mary Jane as well as the People. By not allowing Mary Jane to testify through written interrogatories, the Court of Appeals deprived her of the opportunity to prove her innocence before the Indonesian authorities and for the Philippine Government the chance to comply with the conditions set for the grant of reprieve to Mary Jane.

The extraordinary factual circumstances
surrounding the case of Mary Jane warrant
the resort to Rule 23 of the Rules of Court

Is the prosecution's resort to Rule 23 of the Rules of Court in taking Mary Jane's testimony as a prosecution witness proper? Yes.

Interestingly, nowhere in the present Rules on Criminal Procedure does it state how a deposition, of a prosecution witness who is at the same time convicted of a grave offense by final judgment and imprisoned in a foreign jurisdiction, may be taken to perpetuate the testimony of such witness. The Rules, in particular, are silent as to how to take a testimony of a witness who is unable to testify in open court because he is imprisoned in another country.

Depositions, however, are recognized under Rule 23 of the Rules on Civil Procedure. Although the rule on deposition by written interrogatories is inscribed under the said Rule, the Court holds that it may be applied suppletorily in criminal proceedings so long as there is compelling reason.

Verily, in light of the unusual circumstances surrounding the instant case, the Court sees no reason not to apply suppletorily the provisions of Rule 23 of the Rules on Civil Procedure in the interest of substantial justice and fairness. Hence, the taking of testimony of Mary Jane through a deposition by written interrogatories is in order.

The deposition by written interrogatories
is pursuant to Mary Jane's right to due process

Furthermore, to disallow the written interrogatories will curtail Mary Jane's right to due process.

The benchmark of the right to due process in criminal justice is to ensure that all the parties have their day in court. It is in accord with the duty of the government to follow a fair process of decision-making when it acts to deprive a person of his liberty. But just as an accused is accorded this constitutional protection, so is the State entitled to due process in criminal prosecutions. It must likewise be given an equal chance to present its evidence in support of a charge.

No violation of the constitutional right to confrontation of a witness

Similarly, the deposition by written interrogatories will not infringe the constitutional right to confrontation of a witness of Cristina and Julius.

The right to confrontation is part of due process not only in criminal proceedings but also in civil proceedings as well as in proceedings in administrative tribunals with quasi-judicial powers. It has a two-fold purpose: (1) primarily, to afford the accused an opportunity to test the testimony of the witness by cross-examination; and (2) secondarily, to allow the judge to observe the deportment of the witness.

True, Cristina and Julius have no opportunity to confront Mary Jane face to face in light of the prevailing circumstance. However, the terms and conditions laid down by the trial court ensure that they are given ample opportunity to cross-examine Mary Jane by way of written interrogatories so as not to defeat the first purpose of their constitutional right. To recall, the trial court requires Cristina and Julius, through their counsel, to file their comment and may raise objections to the proposed questions in the written interrogatories submitted by the prosecution. The trial court judge shall promptly rule on the objections. Thereafter, only the final questions would be asked by the Consul of the Philippines in Indonesia or his designated representative. The answers of Mary Jane to the propounded questions must be written verbatim, and a transcribed copy of the same would be given to the counsel of the accused who would, in turn, submit their proposed cross interrogatory questions to the prosecution. Should the prosecution raised any objection thereto, the trial court judge must promptly rule on the same, and the final cross interrogatory questions for the deposition of Mary Jane will then be conducted. Mary Jane's answers in the cross interrogatory shall likewise be taken in verbatim and a transcribed copy thereof shall be given to the prosecution.

The second purpose of the constitutional right to confrontation has likewise been upheld. As aptly stated in the terms and conditions for the taking of deposition, the trial court judge will be present during the conduct of written interrogatories on Mary Jane.

Indubitably, the constitutional rights of Cristina and Julius are equally safeguarded. The parameters laid down by the trial court are sufficient in detail ensuring that Mary Jane will give her testimony under oath to deter lying by the threat of perjury charge. She is still subjected to cross-examination so as to determine the presence of any falsehood in her testimony. Lastly, the guidelines enable the trial court judge to observe her demeanor as a witness and assess her credibility. SO ORDERED.

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