Aguirre distances self from DOJ downgrade of charges in Espinosa slay

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said he has nothing to do with the resolution released by his own department on the charges against policemen involved in the killing of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr.

"I was not the one who wrote it. I was not the one who signed it," said Aguirre on Wednesday, June 21, referring to the heavily criticized move of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to downgrade the charges against the cops to homicide instead of murder.

"I did not have any hand in the drafting of the resolution being referred to by some senators," Aguirre added.

The DOJ resolution that downgraded the charges was signed by Justice Undersecretary Reynante Orceo on June 2. Senators denounced the DOJ for the move, which contradicts the Senate probe's findings that the cops should be charged with murder. (READ: Why Senate thinks CIDG 8 planned Espinosa killing)

After the downgrade, former Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) Region 8 Superintendent Marvin Marcos and his 18 co-accused walked free after posting bail on June 16.

Asked about the bail, Aguirre said in an earlier interview: "Hindi ko alam eh, nasa probinsya 'yan eh, 'di naman dumadating sa akin 'yan, wala akong role. Okay lang 'yun kasi homicide charges lang sa kanila eh, bailable 'yun."

(I don't know, that came from the province, that didn't reach me, I don't have a role there. But that's okay because their charges are only homicide, that's bailable.)

Orceo is a Manila-based undersecretary of the DOJ. His resolution on June 2 also dismissed the charges of maliciously obtained warrant against two cops and an inmate.

An earlier resolution from the DOJ, signed on March 2 by prosecutors Lilian Doris Alejo, Olivia Torrevillas, Jinky Dedumo, Karla Cabel, Moises Acayan, and Pedrito Rances, had recommended charges of maliciously obtained warrant against Chief Inspector Leo Laraga and Police Officer 3 (PO3) Norman Abellanosa. The prosecutors found irregularities in the search warrant the cops used for Espinosa's jail cell.

The March 2 DOJ resolution pointed out that a search warrant is not needed for police to inspect a jail, since they are authorized to inspect given coordination with jail administrators.

"The records will show that respondents craftily executed the killings under the pretense of implementing a search warrant," said the DOJ on March 2, when it recommended murder charges.

But there was a complete change of tune on June 2 in the Orceo-signed resolution. "It was gravely erroneous for the panel to conclude that 'the records will show that respondents craftily executed the killings under the pretense of implementing a search warrant,'" Orceo wrote as he downgraded the charges to homicide.

The DOJ said Orceo has not responded to reporters' requests for comment.

Senators' ire

Describing the downgrade of charges as "deeply concerning," Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV filed Senate Resolution No. 413 on Wednesday, seeking an explanation from the DOJ.

"The DOJ's recent ruling in favor of the accused police officers was made with blatant disregard for the findings of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Senate," Aquino said in his resolution.

"This sends the message that the supposed law enforcers frontlining the current administration's war on drugs are exempted from the rule of law," the senator also said.

Asked if he was willing to face a Senate inquiry, Aguirre said in an interview on ANC: "At any time, I am willing to face anybody if I'm called. I have nothing to hide."

Senator Risa Hontiveros also said earlier that Aguirre should provide an explanation, adding that "enough is enough."

"From being the fake news king of Padre Faura, Secretary Aguirre is also now immortalized as the DOJ's flip-flop king, a would-be absolver of murderers," Hontiveros said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon also noted that the DOJ's move is inconsistent with Aguirre's previously stated stance.

"Secretary Aguirre told us under oath here in the Senate that he himself considers the killing as premeditated. He even pointed out that the conduct of Espinosa's arrest was not consistent with the PNP's procedures," Drilon said.

Senator Richard Gordon also said the downgrade is suspicious.

"I'm very disappointed. There should be no bail for [the accused] because what they did was cold-blooded murder. Nagtataka lang ako why they are so eager na ibaba 'yung krimen (I wonder why they're so eager to downgrade the charges). To me, that's a clear violation," Gordon added.

The downgrade is the DOJ's latest flip-flop after a number of reversals of decisions on the case of Lieutenant Colonel Ferdinand Marcelino who was arrested in a drug raid at a supposed shabu lab in 2016. Last May, the DOJ set Marcelino free. – with reports from Camille Elemia / Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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