PEOPLE v. DOMINGUEZ Et.al – G.R. No. 229420, February 19, 2018

Facts:
On January 13, 2011, Venson Evangelista, a car salesman, was abducted in Cubao, Quezon City by a group of men later pinpointed as the respondents herein. Evangelista’s charred remains were discovered the following day in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija.

In connection with the incident, Alfred Mendiola (Mendiola) and Ferdinand Parulan (Parulan) voluntarily surrendered to the Philippine National Police (PNP) and executed extrajudicial confessions identifying respondents Roger and Raymond Dominguez (Dominguez Brothers) as the masterminds behind the killing. This led to the filing before the Quezon City RTC of an Information against Mendiola and the respondents for Carnapping with Homicide under Section 14 of Republic Act No. 6539.

On June 27, 2011, a hearing was conducted on the prosecution’s motion that Mendiola be discharged as an accused to become a state witness. On the said date, Mendiola gave his testimony and was cross­ examined by the counsel for the defense. Nevertheless, the defense manifested that the cross-examination was limited only to the incident of discharge, and that their party reserved the right to a more lengthy cross­ examination during the prosecution’s presentation of the evidence in chief.

On September 29, 2011, the RTC issued an Order granting the motion to discharge Mendiola as an accused to become a state witness. Thereafter, by a surprise turn of events, Mendiola was found dead on May 6, 2012. The RTC then required the parties to submit their respective position papers on whether or not Mendiola’s testimony during the discharge proceeding should be admitted as part of the prosecution’s evidence in chief despite his failure to testify during the trial proper prior to his death.

The RTC issued the assailed Order directing that the testimony of Mendiola be stricken off the records. The issue was elevated to the Court of Appeals via petition for certiorari under Rule 65, but the appellate court found no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the trial court. It thus dismissed the petition in its assailed May 27, 2016. The CA denied petitioner’s motion for reconsideration therefrom through its January 18, 2017 Resolution. Hence, the instant recourse.

Issue:
Whether the testimony of Mendiola should be stricken off the records due to his subsequent death.

Held:
No, the death of the state witness prior to trial proper will not automatically render his testimony during the discharge proceeding inadmissible.

Section 17 of Rule 119 of the Rules of Court pertinently provides that discharge of accused to be state witness. – When two or more persons are jointly charged with the commission of any offense, upon motion of the prosecution before resting its case, the court may direct one or more of the accused to be discharged with their consent so that they may be witnesses for the state when, after requiring the prosecution to present evidence and the sworn statement of each proposed state witness at a hearing in support of the discharge, the court is satisfied that:

(a) There is absolute necessity for the testimony of the accused whose discharge is requested;
(b) The is no other direct evidence available for the proper prosecution of the offense committed, except the testimony of said accused;
(c) The testimony of said accused can be substantially corroborated in its material points;
(d) Said accused does not appear to be the most guilty; and
(e) Said accused has not at any time been convicted of any offense involving moral turpitude.

Evidence adduced in support of the discharge shall automatically form part of the trial. If the court denies the motion for discharge of the accused as state witness, his sworn statement shall be inadmissible in evidence.

The rule is explicit that the testimony of the witness during the discharge proceeding will only be inadmissible if the court denies the motion to discharge the accused as a state witness. However, the motion hearing in this case had already concluded and the motion for discharge, approved. Thus, whatever transpired during the hearing is already automatically deemed part of the records and admissible in evidence pursuant to the rule.

Respondent raised that Section 18, Rule 119 of the Rules of Court makes it mandatory that the state witness be presented during trial proper and that, otherwise, his failure to do so would render his testimony inadmissible. On this point, Miranda, the RTC and the CA are mistaken in their interpretation of the rule, which pertinently provides:

Section 18. Discharge of accused operates as acquittal. – The order indicated in the preceding section shall amount to an acquittal of the discharged accused and shall be a bar to future prosecution for the same offense, unless the accused fails or refuses to testify against his co­-accused in accordance with his sworn statement constituting the basis for the discharge. (emphasis added).

While respondent Miranda is correct that the motion hearing is different from the presentation of evidence in chief, it is precisely because of this distinction and separability that the validity of the discharge proceeding should remain untouched despite the non-presentation of Mendiola during trial on the merits. True, the provision requires the accused to testify again during trial proper after he qualifies as a state witness. However, non­compliance therewith would only prevent the order of discharge from operating as an acquittal; it does not speak of any penalty to the effect of rendering all the testimonies of the state witness during the discharge proceeding inadmissible. On the contrary, the testimonies and admissions of a state witness during the discharge proceedings may be admitted as evidence to impute criminal liability against him should he fail or refuse to testify in accordance with his sworn statement constituting the basis for the discharge, militating against the claim of inadmissibility.

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