Mar 25, 2022

Testigo del estado

Testigo del estado

By: Tranquil G.S. Salvador III


“The purpose is to avoid letting a crime go unpunished.”

When a group of people commit a crime and there are no witnesses who can positively identify them, the prosecution may apply for the discharge of one or a number of them as state witnesses. However, the prosecution must satisfy certain conditions and requirements before a member of the group of accused is discharged.

Once an accused is discharged as a state witness, acquittal follows unless the accused fails or refuses to testify against his co-accused (Rosales v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 80418, October 23, 1992). If the court denies the application, the sworn statement of the would-be state witness shall be inadmissible in evidence (Section 17, Rule 119, Criminal Procedure).

The conditions for a discharge are the following: (a) there are two or more accused jointly charged with the commission of an offense; (b) the application is filed by the prosecution before it rests its case; (c) the sworn statement of the proposed state witness is presented in a hearing for that purpose; and (d) the accused gives his consent to be a state witness (Jimenez v. People, G.R. No. 209195, September 17, 2014).

In the case of Jimenez v. People, Manuel Montero, a former employee of the BSJ Company (owned by Manuel and Lope Jimenez), executed a sworn statement confessing his participation in the killing of Ruby Rose Barrameda (Ruby Rose). He named Manuel and Lope Jimenez, Lennard A. Descalso alias “Spyke,” Robert Ponce alias “Obet,” and Eric Fernandez as his co-conspirators (G.R. No. 209195, September 17, 2014).

The sworn statement of Montero alleged that the steel casing containing the body of Ruby Rose was recovered in the place he identified. Undeniably, all of the procedural conditions were met in the Jimenez case, leading the trial court to grant the discharge of Montero as a state witness.

The time-bound qualifier of “before the prosecution rests its case” means that it has applied for the discharge before its formal offer of evidence is submitted. Similarly, the hearing in support of the discharge is different from the trial itself. In the former, the prosecution presents its evidence proving the satisfaction of the conditions for the discharge, as well as the sworn statement of the proposed witness (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing People v. Court of Appeals).

Aside from the procedural conditions, the trial court must be satisfied that: a) there is absolute necessity for the testimony of the accused to be discharged; b) there is no other direct evidence available; (c) the testimony of the said accused can be substantially corroborated in its material points; d) he does not appear to be the most guilty; and, (e) he has not been convicted of any offense involving moral turpitude (Section 17, Rule 119, Criminal Procedure).

Absolute necessity exists when the accused to be discharged as a state witness alone has the knowledge of the crime. There is no necessity when the proposed testimony would simply corroborate or strengthen the prosecution’s evidence (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing Jimenez v. People).

Hence, for example, if three prosecution witnesses had testified that they saw the shooting incident and identified the defendants, there is no absolute necessity of a proposed state witness, since there is direct evidence available to prove the crime (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing People v. De Atras).

It is also a requirement that the witness to be discharged does not appear to be the “most guilty”. Most guilty refers to the highest degree of culpability in terms of participation in the commission of the offense and does not necessarily mean the severity of the penalty imposed (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing People v. Ocimar).

In the case of People v. Larrañaga, et al., the state witness Rusia’s admission that he raped Jacqueline does not make him the “most guilty” of the crimes charged; the reason being that they were charged with kidnapping and illegal detention, but not rape (G.R. No. 138874, February 3, 2004).

Moreover, far from being the mastermind, Rusia’s participation, as shown by the chronology of events, was limited to that of an oblivious follower who simply “joined the ride” as the commission of the crimes progressed. It may be recalled that he joined the group upon Rowen’s promise that there would be a “big happening” on the night of July 16, 1997 (G.R. No. 138874, February 3, 2004).

The court can only rely on the testimony of the proposed state witness if he has not been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. In the case of De La Torre v. COMELEC, the court clarified that not every criminal act, involves moral turpitude. It is for this reason that “as to what crime involves moral turpitude, is for the Supreme Court to determine” (G.R. No. 121592, July 5, 1996).

Examples of crimes involving moral turpitude are perjury, false testimony, estafa or fraud, falsification of documents, theft or robbery, among others. In the same Larrañaga case, Rusia being convicted of third-degree burglary in Minnesota does not render his testimony inadmissible.

In People v. De Guzman, the Supreme Court held that although the trial court may have erred in discharging the accused, such an error would not have affected the competency and the quality of the testimony of the defendant (G.R. No. 118670, February 22, 2000). In Mangubat v. Sandiganbayan, it explained that the previous final conviction of crimes involving moral turpitude is not a reversible error:

“This Court has time and again declared that even if the discharged state witness should lack some of the qualifications enumerated by Section 9, Rule 119 of the Rules of Court, his testimony will not, for that reason alone, be discarded or disregarded. x x x … (G.R. No. L-60613-20, April 10, 1985)”

There is some confusion between the Discharge of a State Witness under the Rules of Court and Discharge under the Witness Protection Program (WPP) (R.A. No. 6981). The immunity in the former is granted by the court, while the immunity under the latter is granted by the Department of Justice. The discharge under the Rules of Court constitutes double jeopardy. However, under the WPP, the witness is merely excluded from the information and not acquitted (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure).

The purpose of this Rule is to avoid letting a crime go unpunished. Hence, an accused who is not the most guilty, will be allowed to testify against those that are more guilty than him, in order to achieve the greatest number of convictions for the offense committed. It also precludes the possibility of the most guilty being set free and those who are less guilty are made to suffer the penalty of the crime (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure).

(Manila Standard, March 25, 2022)