Mary Jane, 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. Believing that the job was a ray of hope, Mary Jane scraped whatever meager money she had and when the amount was not even enough to pay Cristina and Julius as placement fee, she resorted to borrowing from relatives. Still, the amount gathered was insufficient prompting Mary Jane’s husband to sell even their precious motorcycle. On April 21, 2010, Mary Jane, together with Cristina, eventually left the Philippines for Malaysia. However, to Mary Jane’s dismay, she was informed by Cristina upon their arrival in Malaysia that the job intended for her was no longer available. After spending a few days in Malaysia, Cristina sent Mary Jane to Indonesia for a seven-day holiday with a promise that she will have a job upon her return in Malaysia. Cristina gave Mary Jane her plane ticket as well as a luggage to bring on her trip. Upon Mary Jane’s arrival at the Adisucipto International Airport in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, she was apprehended by the police officers for allegedly carrying 2.6 kilograms of heroin inside her luggage. She was accordingly charged with drug trafficking before the District Court of Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Mary Jane sought comfort from her family in the Philippines and informed them that she was currently detained in Indonesia. Mary Jane’s family immediately confronted Cristina who instead of helping them even threatened them to keep the matter to themselves and not to divulge the same especially to the media. She even told Mary Jane’s family that she is part of an international drug syndicate who would spend millions to get Mary Jane out of prison. However, in October 2010, the District Court of Sleman, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, convicted Mary Jane of drug trafficking and sentenced her to death by firing squad. After the affirmance of her conviction by the High Court and the Supreme Court of Indonesia, Mary Jane and eight other felons who were similarly convicted of drug-related offenses were brought to a prison facility in the island of Nusakambangan, off Central Java, Indonesia, to await their execution by firing squad, which was originally scheduled on April 9, 2015 but later rescheduled to April 28, 2015. Eventually, the eight companions of Mary Jane were executed by firing squad. Presently, Mary Jane is detained at the Wirogunan Penitentiary in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Cristina and Julius were arrested by the operatives of the Anti-Human Trafficking Division of the National Bureau of Investigation. Thereafter, they were charged with qualified trafficking in person in violation of Section 4(a) in relation to Sections 3 (a) and 6 of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9208, otherwise known as “Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003”. Cristina and Julius were likewise charged in two separate Informations with the crime of illegal recruitment as penalized under Section 6, par. (k) and (1) of R.A. No. 8042, otherwise known as “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Workers Act of 1995,” and estafa in violation of Section 2(a), Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code respectively, filed before the trial court. Upon arraignment, Cristina and Julius entered a plea of “not guilty” on all charges.
On March 31, 2015, representatives from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Laboratory, and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) went to Wirugonan Prison to interview Mary Jane. She executed a document known as “Sinumpaang Salaysay ni Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso. “
On the basis of her affidavit, 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. Thus, on April 28, 2015, or a few hours before the scheduled execution of Mary Jane, the President of Indonesia, His Excellency Joko Widodo, granted her an indefinite reprieve. The Cabinet Secretary of the Indonesian Government informed the public that President Widodo received reports about the on-going legal proceedings in the Philippines with respect to the case of Mary Jane, and that her recruiters were already in police custody. Hence, pursuant to its obligations under the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters entered into by Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty), the Indonesian authorities deferred indefinitely the execution of Mary Jane to afford her an opportunity to present her case against Cristina, Julius, and “Ike” who were allegedly responsible for recruiting and exploiting her to engage in drug trafficking.
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. The prosecution also pointed out that Rule 23 of the Rules of Court applies suppletorily in criminal proceedings and the use of deposition upon written interrogatories in criminal cases is not expressly prohibited under the Rules of Court. Further, it pointed out that the Supreme Court has allowed dispensation of direct testimony in open court under the Rules of Environmental Cases and the Judicial Affidavit Rule. Lastly, the OSG averred that Cristina and Julius will still have an opportunity to examine Mary Jane by propounding their own set of written interrogatories through the designated consular officer who will be taking the deposition; moreover, they were not precluded from objecting to the questions and answers.
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 prosecution’s motion. Cristina and Julius immediately filed their “Omnibus Motion for Reconsideration and to Suspend Period of Time to File Comments to Proposed Questions for Deposition of Mary Jane Veloso. However, the trial court denied their Omnibus Motion. Undeterred, Cristina and Julius filed a Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Urgent Prayer for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Injunction before the Court of Appeals averring that the trial court judge gravely abused her discretion in the issuance of the assailed Resolutions.
The CA finding grave abuse of discretion on the part of the trial court, granted the Petition for Certiorari The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) sought for reconsideration but it was denied by the appellate court. Aggrieved, the OSG filed the present Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court before the Supreme Court. 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.
Whether Mary Jane’s testimony may be validly acquired through deposition by written interrogatories.
Yes, Section 15. Examination of witness for the prosecution. — When it satisfactorily appears that a witness for the prosecution is too sick or infirm to appear at the trial as directed by the court, or has to leave the Philippines with no definite date of returning, he may forthwith be conditionally examined before the court where the case is pending. Such examination, in the presence of the accused, or in his absence after reasonable notice to attend the examination has been served on him, shall be conducted in the same manner as an examination at the trial. Failure or refusal of the accused to attend the examination after notice shall be considered a waiver. The statement taken may be admitted in behalf of or against the accused.
Under the foregoing provision, 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. She is neither too sick nor infirm to appear at the trial nor has to leave the Philippines indefinitely. To recall, Mary Jane is currently imprisoned in Indonesia for having been convicted by final judgment of the crime of drug trafficking, a grave offense in the said state. In fact, she was already sentenced to death and is only awaiting her execution by firing squad. Her situation is not akin to a person whose limitation of mobility is by reason of ill-health or feeble age, the grounds cited in Section 15 of Rule 119. In fact, Mary Jane’s predicament does not in way pertain to a restriction in movement from one place to another but a deprivation of liberty thru detention in a foreign country with little or no hope of being saved from the extreme penalty of death by firing squad.
It thus necessarily follows that the cases of Go v. People and Cuenco vda. De Manguera v. Risos are not on all fours with the present case. The circumstances of the prosecution witnesses in the cases of Go and Cuenco demanded and justified the strict adherence to Rule 119. The witnesses in both cases anchored their allowance to testify by way of deposition on their claims that they were too sick or infirm to testify before the court. In the case of Go, Li Luen Pen who returned to Cambodia claimed that he was undergoing treatment for lung infection and could not travel back to the Philippines due to his illness.
Similarly, in the case of Cuenco, Concepcion Cuenco Vda. de Manguerra averred that she would not be able to testify before the trial court due to weak physical condition and age. Note, however, that despite the limitation in the mobility of Li Luen Pen and Concepcion, they can still undoubted voluntarily take the witness stand and testify before the trial court should they get better or so decide.
This is not the same in the case of Mary Jane. She cannot even take a single step out of the prison facility of her own volition without facing severe consequences. Her imprisonment in Indonesia and the conditions attached to her reprieve denied her of any opportunity to decide for herself to voluntarily appear and testify before the trial court in Nueva Ecija where the cases of the respondents were pending.
Unfortunately, in denying the State’s motion for deposition through written interrogatories and effectively requiring the presence of Mary Jane before the RTC of Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija, the Court of Appeals appeared to have strictly and rigidly applied and interpreted Section 15, Rule 119 without taking into consideration the concomitant right to due process of Mary Jane and the State as well as the prejudice that will be caused to Mary Jane or the People with its pronouncement. Considering the circumstances of Mary Jane, the Court of Appeals demanded for the impossible to happen and thus impaired the substantial rights of Mary Jane and the State. It was akin to a denial of due process on the part of Mary Jane as well as of the State to establish its case against the respondents. The peculiar circumstances obtaining in the present case made it impossible for Mary Jane to appear before the RTC of Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija. Just like when Mary Jane was recruited by the respondents and taken advantage of because of her poor condition, the same scenario is being repeated because the respondents are again taking advantage of Mary Jane’s dire circumstances which they themselves put her in, by depriving her the opportunity to speak and obtain justice for herself. The Court of Appeals did not take into account the fact that the case of the prosecution against Cristina and Julius can only be erected through the testimony of Mary Jane herself.
Moreover, by denying the prosecution’s motion to take deposition by written interrogatories, the appellate court in effect silenced Mary Jane and denied her and the People of their right to due process by presenting their case against the said accused. By its 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.
[T]he rules of procedure should be viewed as mere tools designed to facilitate the attainment of justice. Their strict and rigid application, which would result in technicalities that tend to frustrate rather than promote substantial justice, must always be avoided. Even the Rules of Court envision this liberality. This power to suspend or even disregard the rules can be so pervasive and encompassing so as to alter even that which this Court itself has already declared to be final, as we are now compelled to do in this case. And this is not without additional basis.
There are several instances wherein the Court has relaxed procedural rules to serve substantial justice because of any of the following reasons: (a) matters of life, liberty, honor or property;
(b) the existence of special or compelling circumstances,
(c) the merits of the case,
(d) a cause not entirely attributable to the fault or negligence of the party favored by the suspension of the rules,
(e) a lack of any showing that the review sought is merely frivolous and dilatory, and
(f) the other party will not be unjustly prejudiced thereby.
Nonetheless, the Court always reminds party litigants that bare invocation of “the interest of substantial justice” is not a magic phrase that will automatically oblige the Court to suspend procedural rules. To stress, “[procedural rules are not to be belittled or dismissed simply because their non-observance may have prejudiced a party’s substantive rights. Like all rules, they are required to be followed except only for the most persuasive of reasons when they may be relaxed to relieve a litigant of an injustice not commensurate with the degree of his thoughtlessness in not complying with the procedure prescribed.”
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. In a catena of cases, the Supreme Court had relaxed the procedural rules by applying suppletorily certain provisions of the Rules on Civil Procedure in criminal proceedings.
On that score, the Court finds no reason to depart from its practice to liberally construe procedural rules for the orderly administration of substantial justice. The conditions with respect to the taking of the testimony of Mary Jane that were laid down by the Indonesian Government support the allowance of written interrogatories under Rule 23 of the Rules of Court.
A strict application of the procedural rules will defeat the very purpose for the grant of reprieve by the Indonesian authorities to Mary Jane. Mary Jane’s testimony, being the victim, is vital in the prosecution of the pending criminal cases that were filed against Cristina and Julius. This has been recognized by no less than the Indonesian President, His Excellency Joko Widodo, who granted the reprieve precisely to afford Mary Jane the opportunity to participate in the legal proceedings obtaining in the Philippines.
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.