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PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[G.R. No. 188331 : June 16, 2010]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, APPELLEE, VS. RYAN LALONGISIP Y DELOS ANGELES, APPELLANT.

D E C I S I O N


NACHURA, J.:

Before this Court is an Appeal1 assailing the Court of Appeals (CA) Decision2 dated February 26, 2009, which affirmed with modification the decision3 dated April 4, 2007 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 63, Calabanga, Camarines Sur, finding appellant Ryan Lalongisip y delos Angeles (appellant) guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Murder for the killing of Romeo Copo (Romeo).

The Facts

Appellant was charged with the crime of Murder in an Information dated March 9, 2006 which reads:

That on or about the 8th day of March, 2006 at around 12:30 P.M. in Barangay Manguiring, Municipality of Calabanga, Province of Camarines Sur, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, with intent to kill, with treachery while armed with a kitchen knife measuring (10 ½) inches long from the handle to the tip of its blade did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously stab Romeo Copo, hitting the latter at the back portion of his body thereby causing his instantaneous death. The victim was not in position to repeal (sic) the suddenness of attack nor defend himself to the damage and prejudice of his heirs in such amount as may be determined by the Honorable Court.

ACTS CONTRARY TO LAW.

During the arraignment on March 21, 2006, appellant entered a plea of "not guilty." Thereafter, trial on the merits ensued. In the course of the trial, two varying versions arose.

Culled from the records, the two versions were summarized by the CA as follows:

The facts, according to the prosecution, are as follows:

On March 8, 2006, the accused-appellant, with the victim Romeo Copo, Victor de Villa, Cesar Andal Jr., Enog [B]ahay, Cesar Andal Sr., certain persons named Badong, Erning, Kuya Canor and some other men were having a drinking spree at the house of Conrado Andal Jr. at Zone 5, Barangay Manguiring, Calabanga, Camarines Sur. It was the first death anniversary of Conrado Andal Jr.'s father. They all occupied a table beside Conrado's house.

Around 12:00 noon, the group was invited to lunch. Romeo Copo then stood up and while he turned his back at the table and moved himself towards the kitchen, the accused-appellant also stood up and suddenly stabbed Romeo at the back. The accused-appellant tried to stab Romeo again but was not able to do so because the handle of the knife used in stabbing was already broken. After he was stabbed, Romeo tried to run towards the kitchen but fell by the kitchen door.

Conrado and his cousin brought Romeo to the hospital. Meanwhile, the accused-appellant went to Barangay Tanod Jose [Peneno] to ask the latter to accompany him as he would like to surrender to police authorities.

SPO1 Carlito Capricho testified that he was the investigator on duty on March 8, 2008. Upon learning of the incident, their Desk Officer, SPO4 Conrado Cantorne, dispatched him and SPO2 Talle to make a follow up investigation and to conduct a hot pursuit of the suspect. During the crime scene investigation, Liza Andal turned over to him the kitchen knife used by the accused-appellant to stab Romeo. SPO1 Capricho then returned to their police station where he learned that the accused-appellant had already surrendered.

Daniel Tan, the rural health physician of the Municipal Health Office of Calabanga, Camarines Sur testified that he conducted a post-mortem examination on the cadaver of the victim. He found a stab wound at the victim's back measuring 5cm. x 1cm., slanted left vertically. It penetrated into the inferior portion of the heart, 10cm. lateral to midspine, level of thoracic vertebrae 3cm. left. He further opined that the wound caused the death of the victim.

The defense maintains a different version of the incident.

According to the accused-appellant, he was at the residence of his compadre Conrado Andal on March 8, 2006. He was there because he was asked to cook food for the first death anniversary of Conrado Andal's father. He finished cooking around 7:00 o'clock in the morning. Thereafter, they started a drinking spree together with other men, including the victim Romeo Copo.

Around noontime, while they were still having their drinking spree, the accused-appellant noticed a knife on the table which they used in cooking. Romeo Copo allegedly got hold of the said knife and the accused-appellant grabbed the same from Romeo because the latter's family was angry at him for reasons he does not know. He and Romeo grappled for the possession of the knife for about ten minutes. When he was able to grab the knife from Romeo, he was in front of Romeo and he accidentally hit the latter's back. This happened because Romeo allegedly turned his back when he was trying to transfer to another place. The accused-appellant swayed his hand because the knife was about to fall and that was the time that he accidentally hit the victim.

He denied the testimonies of Conrado Andal and Genorio Bacay that the stabbing was intentional on his part because according to the accused-appellant, what happened was an accident. The reason that the two testified against him was because they were afraid of the family of the victim considering that they are a family of troublemakers. In fact in 2001, the accused-appellant was stabbed by a member of the Copo family and in 2005, the accused-appellant's sibling was chased by one of the members of the Copo family.

The accused-appellant admitted that before March 8, 2006, he and Romeo Copo had a misunderstanding regarding a cockfight that they had. He likewise admitted that he had to take hold of a knife to defend himself because Romeo might stab him [considering] the existing previous disagreement between their families.

Immediately after the incident, the accused-appellant went to Barangay Tanod Jose Peneno and asked the latter to accompany him in surrendering to the police.4

The RTC's Ruling

On April 4, 2007, the RTC found appellant guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Murder and sentenced him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua and to pay the heirs of Romeo the amount of P25,000.00 as temperate damages, P50,000.00 as civil liability, and to pay the cost. Appellant interposed an appeal,5 assailing the RTC decision, before the CA.

The CA's Ruling

In its Decision dated February 26, 2009, the CA affirmed with modification the decision of the RTC, imposing upon appellant the penalty of reclusion perpetua and ordering him to pay the heirs of Romeo the amount of P50,000.00 as civil indemnity, and P50,000.00 as moral damages.

Aggrieved, appellant elevated the case to this Court. In their respective Manifestations filed before this Court, appellant, as represented by the Public Attorney's Office, and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) opted to adopt their respective Briefs filed before the CA as their Supplemental Briefs.

Appellant assigns the following errors:

I.

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED-APPELLANT WHEN HIS GUILT WAS NOT PROVEN BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT.

II.

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN NOT APPRECIATING THE JUSTIFYING CIRCUMSTANCE OF SELF-DEFENSE IN FAVOR OF THE ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

III.

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED-APPELLANT OF MURDER INSTEAD OF HOMICIDE.6

The core issue in this appeal is whether appellant's guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Appellant avers that he merely acted in self-defense because Romeo was the unlawful aggressor when the latter got hold of a knife that was used for cooking; that his life was imperilled; that the means he employed to repel said aggression were reasonably necessary; that the stabbing incident was merely accidental; and that he did not provoke Romeo. Appellant argues that no treachery attended the killing because the prosecution's evidence failed to show that there was a conscious effort on his part to adopt particular means, methods or forms of attack to ensure the commission of the crime without affording the victim any opportunity to defend himself. Thus, appellant claims that if he is to be held liable at all, his liability should be merely for homicide, not murder.7

On the other hand, the OSG asseverates that appellant, by claiming self-defense, had the burden of proving the existence of all the elements constituting said defense; that appellant failed to discharge this burden; that the killing was attended by treachery because Romeo had his back turned when appellant suddenly stabbed him; that even prosecution witnesses Conrado Andal, Jr. and Genorio Bacay were caught off guard by the suddenness of the unprovoked attack; and that the findings of the trial court are binding and conclusive on this Court.8

Our Ruling

We dismiss the appeal.

First. We discard appellant's claim of self-defense.

When self-defense is invoked by an accused charged with murder or homicide, he necessarily owns up to the killing but intends to evade criminal liability by proving that the killing was justified. Hence, it becomes incumbent upon the accused to prove by clear and convincing evidence the three (3) elements of self-defense, namely: (1) unlawful aggression on the part of the victim; (2) reasonable necessity of the means employed to prevent or repel the aggression; and (3) lack of sufficient provocation on the

part of the person defending himself. Of these elements, the accused must, initially, prove unlawful aggression, because without it, there can be no self-defense, either complete or incomplete.9

Even if we consider appellant's own version of the facts, we find that there was no unlawful aggression on the part of Romeo. Appellant himself testified that he did not have any prior argument with Romeo immediately before the stabbing incident; that they were freely conversing with each other; and that, other than allegedly holding a knife, Romeo did not commence any act constitutive of unlawful aggression or demonstrative of any imminent threat of attack.

Appellant's tale that he grappled with Romeo for the possession of the knife for almost 10 minutes is incredible. There were many persons present. It is highly unbelievable that not one of the many men present intervened or tried to pacify them. Moreover, not one of those who were present came forward to corroborate appellant's version of the incident.

Second. There was treachery in the killing of Romeo.

Article 248 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) clearly provides:

ART. 248. Murder. -- Any person who, not falling within the provisions of Article 246, shall kill another, shall be guilty of murder and shall be punished by reclusion perpetua to death, if committed with any of the following attendant circumstances:

1. With treachery, taking advantage of superior strength, with the aid of armed men, or employing means to weaken the defense, or of means or persons to insure or afford impunity;

2. In consideration of a price, reward, or promise;

3. By means of inundation, fire, poison, explosion, shipwreck, stranding of a vessel, derailment or assault upon a railroad, fall of an airship, by means of motor vehicles, or with the use of any other means involving great waste and ruin;

4. On occasion of any of the calamities enumerated in the preceding paragraph, or of an earthquake, eruption of a volcano, destructive cyclone, epidemic, or any other public calamity;

5. With evident premeditation;

6. With cruelty, by deliberately and inhumanly augmenting the suffering of the victim, or outraging or scoffing at his person or corpse.10

Treachery exists when an offender commits any of the crimes against persons, employing means, methods or forms in the execution thereof which tend directly and specially to ensure its execution, without risk to himself, arising from the defense which the offended party might make.11 The events narrated by the prosecution eyewitnesses point to the fact that Romeo could not have been aware that he would be attacked by appellant. There was no opportunity for him to defend himself, since appellant, suddenly and without provocation, stabbed the victim at the back as they were about to partake of their lunch. The essence of treachery is the unexpected and sudden attack on the victim which renders the latter unable and unprepared to defend himself by reason of the suddenness and severity of the attack. This criterion applies whether the attack is frontal or from behind.12

Appellant's argument that prosecution witnesses Conrado Andal, Jr. and Genorio Bacay testified against him because they were afraid of Romeo's family deserves scant consideration. No evidence was presented to show that the eyewitnesses had any motive to prevaricate and falsely point to appellant as the perpetrator of such heinous crime.

It is a doctrine well settled in our jurisprudence that when the credibility of a witness is in issue, the findings of fact of the trial court, its calibration of the testimonies of the witnesses, and its assessment of the probative weight thereof, as well as its conclusions anchored on said findings, are accorded high respect, if not conclusive effect. This is because the trial court has the unique opportunity to observe the demeanor of witnesses and is in the best position to discern whether they are telling the truth. It is worth stressing that the CA affirmed the RTC's findings, according credence and great weight to the testimonies of the prosecution's witnesses. In this regard, it is the rule that when the trial court's findings have been affirmed by the appellate court, said findings are generally conclusive and binding upon this Court.13 We find no compelling reason to deviate from the uniform finding of both the RTC and the CA that indeed appellant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Murder.

We also agree with the RTC that appellant voluntarily surrendered. The appellant's conduct was spontaneous when he gave himself up to the authorities, thus saving the State the trouble and the expenses necessarily incurred in his search and capture.14

However, in accordance with current jurisprudence, we modify the award of damages, and apply People of the Philippines v. Richard O. Sarcia,15 where we said:

The principal consideration for the award of damages, under the ruling in People v. Salome and People v. Quiachon is the penalty provided by law or imposable for the offense because of its heineousness, not the public penalty actually imposed on the offender.

Regarding the civil indemnity and moral damages, People v. Salome explained the basis for increasing the amount of said civil damages as follows:

The Court, likewise, affirms the civil indemnity awarded by the Court of Appeals to Sally in accordance with the ruling in People v. Sambrano which states:

"As to damages, we have held that if the rape is perpetrated with any of the attending qualifying circumstances that require the imposition of the death penalty, the civil indemnity for the victim shall beP75,000.00 . . . Also, in rape cases, moral damages are awarded without the need of proof other than the fact of rape because it is assumed that the victim has suffered moral injuries entitling her to such an award. However, the trial court's award of P50,000.00 as moral damages should also be increased to P75,000.00 pursuant to current jurisprudence on qualified rape."

It should be noted that while the new law prohibits the imposition of the death penalty, the penalty provided for by law for a heinous offense is still death and the offense is still heinous. Consequently, the civil indemnity for the victim is still Php75,000.00.

People v. Quiachon also rationcinates as follows:

With respect to the award of damages, the appellate court, following prevailing jurisprudence, correctly awarded the following amounts: P75,000.00 as civil indemnity which is awarded if the crime is qualified by circumstances warranting the imposition of the death penalty; P75,000.00 as moral damages because the victim is assumed to have suffered moral injuries, hence, entitling her to an award of moral damages even without proof thereof, x x x.

Even if the penalty of death is not to be imposed on the appellant because of the prohibition in R.A. No. 9346, the civil indemnity of P75,000.00 is still proper because, following the rationcination in People v. Victor, the said award is not dependent on the actual imposition of the death penalty but on the fact that qualifying circumstances warranting the imposition of the death penalty attended the commission of the offense. The Court declared that the award of P75,000.00 shows "not only a reaction to the apathetic societal perception of the penal law and the financial fluctuations over time but also the expression of the displeasure of the court of the incidence of heinous crimes against chastity."

The litmus test therefore, in the determination of the civil indemnity is the heinous character of the crime committed, which would have warranted the imposition of the death penalty, regardless of whether the penalty actually imposed is reduced to reclusion perpetua.

Thus, based on the foregoing disquisition, we increase the amount of damages awarded by the CA. The amount of P50,000.00 as civil indemnity and P50,000.00 as moral damages shall be increased to P75,000.00 respectively. Likewise, exemplary damages should also be imposed at P30,000.00.16 Finally, in addition to the damages awarded, the appellant should also pay interest at the legal rate of 6% per annum from this date until full payment.17

In sum, appellant failed to show that the CA committed any reversible error in its assailed Decision which would warrant the reversal of the same.

WHEREFORE, the Court of Appeals Decision dated February 26, 2009 in CA-G.R. CR H.C. No. 02802 finding appellant Ryan Lalongisip y delos Angeles guilty beyond reasonable doubt of Murder and sentencing him to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua is AFFIRMED with the MODIFICATION that appellant is ordered to pay the heirs of Romeo Copo P75,000.00 as civil indemnity, P75,000.00 as moral damages, and P30,000.00 as exemplary damages. Costs against appellant.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, (Chairperson), Peralta, Abad, and Perez,* JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


* Additional member in lieu of Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza per Special Order No. 842 dated June 3, 2010.

1 Rollo, pp. 10-12.

2 Particularly docketed as CA-G.R. CR H.C. No. 02802, penned by Associate Justice Bienvenido L. Reyes, with Associate Justices Isaias P. Dican and Marlene Gonzales-Sison, concurring; id. at 2-9.

3 CA rollo, pp. 49-57.

4 Supra note 2, at 3-5. (Citations omitted.)

5 CA rollo, p. 24.

6 Brief for the Accused-Appellant; id. at 33-47, at 41-42.

7 Id.

8 Brief for the Appellee; id. at 73-91.

9 People v. Regalario, G.R. No. 174483, March 31, 2009, 582 SCRA 738, 750-751, citing People v. More, 378 Phil. 1153, 1158-1159 (1999).

10 Emphasis supplied.

11 People v. Perez, G.R. No. 179154, July 31, 2009, 594 SCRA 701, 716.

12 People v. Alfon, G.R. No. 126028, March 14, 2003, 399 SCRA 64, 73-74.

13 People v. Beltran, Jr., G.R. No. 168051, September 27, 2006, 503 SCRA 715, 730.

14 People v. Callet, 431 Phil. 622, 636 (2002).

15 G.R. No. 169641, September 10, 2009.

16 People v. Achas, G.R. No. 185712, August 4, 2009, 595 SCRA 341, 355.

17 People of the Philippines v. Manuel Bagos, G.R. No. 177152, January 6, 2010.
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