Killing due to anger during a pandemic - what's the penalty?

Killing a person is, as a rule, a crime (technically called "a felony"). It may be homicide or murder. Generally, the killing of another person is classified as homicide unless any of the following circumstances is present, in which case homicide gets upgraded to murder:
  1. Done with treachery;
  2. Done by taking advantage of superior strength;
  3. Done with the aid of armed men;
  4. Done by employing means to weaken the defense or of means or persons to insure or afford impunity;
  5. Done in consideration of a price, reward, or promise;
  6. Done by means of inundation, fire, poison, explosion, shipwreck, stranding of a vessel, derailment or assault upon a street car or locomotive, fall of an airship;
  7. Done by means of motor vehicles;
  8. Done with the use of any other means involving great waste and ruin;
  9. Done on occasion of any of the calamities enumerated in the preceding paragraph, or of an earthquake, eruption of a volcano, destructive cyclone, epidemic or other public calamity;
  10. Done with evident premeditation;
  11. Done with cruelty, by deliberately and inhumanly augmenting the suffering of the victim; or
  12. Done with outraging or scoffing at the victim's person or corpse. (Articles 248, Revised Penal Code)
In short, if none of the above is present, killing is only categorized as homicide. The distinction is important because murder is punished with reclusion perpetua in its maximum period to death. On the other hand, homicide is punished with reclusion temporal. (Articles 248 and 249, Revised Penal Code)

The penalty of reclusion temporal shall be from twelve years and one day to twenty years. (Article 27, Revised Penal Code) The penalty of death, currently, cannot be imposed as it is prohibited by law.

Recently very popular is the case of Police Corporal Jonel Nuezca who shot dead Sonya Gregorio and Frank Gregorio over an argument with Frank. According to Police Colonel Renante Cabico, director of the Tarlac Provincial Police Office, Nuezca had gone to the Gregorios to investigate who was shooting boga, an improvised canon usually made of bamboo, used to make noise during New Year celebrations. When Nuezca tried to arrest Frank Gregorio, who appeared drunk, his mother Sonya intervened. "Nung aarestuhin niya, nakialam daw po 'yung magulang, 'yung nanay niya na si Sonya, na naging biktima po hanggang nabaril na nga po 'yung mag-ina," said Cabico on Monday, December 21, in an interview with DZBB.

The question now is whether this is homicide or murder. The prosecution would obviously push for a higher penalty under the law on murder. On the other hand, the defense would use justifying, exempting and mitigating circumstances provided under the Revised Penal Code.

The argument for murder is bolstered by the fact that the police officer did the killing during this COVID-19 pandemic which falls under #9 above which says: "epidemic or other public calamity." Cruelty may also be cited as a qualifying aggravating circumstance due to the fact that the police officer shot the female victim a second time when she was already hit by the first bullet.

On the other hand, there are those who say that one or two of the following may be used as a defense:
  1. Self-defense (justifying circumstance);
  2. Fulfillment of a duty (justifying circumstance);
  3. Insanity (exempting circumstance); or
  4. Compulsion of irresistible force (exempting circumstance).
The argument for self-defense fails because, first, there was no unlawful aggression. The fact that the mother ridiculed the killer's daughter is aggression enough to warrant killing. It should be proportional to the aggression and adequate to stir the aggressor to its commission. (People vs. Rabanal, G.R. No. 146687, 22 August 2002) Second, the means employed were not reasonable to repel the perceived aggression. Under the circumstances, the killer could have simply covered the mouth of the female victim or, at the most, slap her if, indeed, he was provoked to act violently.

The argument for fulfillment of a duty also fails. A policeman in the performance of duty is justified in using such force as is reasonably necessary to secure and detain the offender, overcome his resistance, prevent his escape, recapture him if he escapes, and protect himself from bodily harm. In case injury or death results from the policeman’s exercise of such force, the policeman could be justified in inflicting the injury or causing the death of the offender if the policeman had used necessary force. (Read more about the defense of fulfillment of a duty here.)

While self-defense and performance of duty are two distinct justifying circumstances, self-defense or defense of a stranger may still be relevant even if the proper justifying circumstance in a given case is fulfillment of duty. For example, a policeman’s use of what appears to be excessive force could be justified if there was imminent danger to the policeman’s life or to that of a stranger. If the policeman used force to protect his life or that of a stranger, then the defense of fulfillment of duty would be complete, the second requisite being present. (Read more about the defense of fulfillment of a duty here.)

As to the defense of insanity, there are those who say that there was "temporary insanity" on the part of the killer. Obviously, this argument has to be resorted to because the killer even attempted to make an arrest prior to the violence, which negates the idea that he was insane.

Article 12 of the Revised Penal Code provides for one of the circumstances which will exempt one from criminal liability which is when the perpetrator of the act was an imbecile or insane, unless the latter has acted during a lucid interval. This circumstance, however, is not easily available to an accused as a successful defense. Insanity is the exception rather than the rule in the human condition. Under Article 800 of the Civil Code, the presumption is that every human is sane. Anyone who pleads the exempting circumstance of insanity bears the burden of proving it with clear and convincing evidence. It is in the nature of confession and avoidance. An accused invoking insanity admits to have committed the crime but claims that he or she is not guilty thereof because of insanity. The testimony or proof of an accused’s insanity must, however, relate to the time immediately preceding or simultaneous with the commission of the offense with which he is charged. (Quoted in G.R. No. 218945, December 13, 2017 with affirmance but with modification as to penalty)

Unfortunately, even the defense of "temporary insanity" necessarily fails. "Temporary insanity" is not recognized in this jurisdiction and that mere abnormality of the mental faculties will not exclude imputability. (People v. Aquino, G.R. No. 128887, January 20, 2000)

Finally, the killer also cannot successfully interpose the defense of compulsion of an irresistible force. In fact, in People v. Dansal, the Supreme Court held that a person invoking the exempting circumstance of compulsion due to irresistible force admits in effect the commission of a punishable act, and must therefore prove the exempting circumstance by clear and convincing evidence. Specifically, he must show that the irresistible force reduced him to a mere instrument that acted not only without will but also against his will. The compulsion must be of such character as to leave the accused no opportunity to defend himself or to escape. The duress, force, fear or intimidation must be present, imminent and impending; and it must be of such a nature as to induce a well-grounded apprehension of death or serious bodily harm if the act is not done. A threat of future injury is not enough. A speculative, fanciful or remote fear, even fear of future injury, is insufficient. (341 Phil. 549 [1997], cited in People v. Licayan, G.R. No. 203961, July 29, 2015)

Mitigating circumstances (those that may make the penalty lower), however, may be appreciated. There are arguments that say the following should apply:
  1. The killer having acted upon an impulse so powerful as naturally to have produced passion or obfuscation; and/or
  2. The killer voluntarily surrendering himself to a person in authority or his agents. (Article 13, Revised Penal Code).
In People v. Lobino, it was held that "[t]here is passional obfuscation when the crime was committed due to an uncontrollable burst of passion provoked by prior unjust or improper acts, or due to a legitimate stimulus so powerful as to overcome reason." The obfuscation must originate from lawful feelings. The turmoil and unreason which naturally result from a quarrel or fight should not be confused with the sentiment or excitement in the mind of a person injured or offended to such a degree as to deprive him of his sanity and self-control, because the cause of this condition of mind must necessarily have preceded the commission of the offense. (375 Phil. 1065, 1999, citing People v. Valles, G.R. No. 110564, January 28, 1997)

The killer may also choose to voluntarily confess his guilt before the court prior to the presentation of the evidence for the prosecution in order to make the penalty lower. However, these mitigating circumstances are heavily reliant on factual findings; therefore, a full-blown trial must proceed to determine them.