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G.R. No. 175592, June 14, 2016 - PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. EDISON C. MAGBITANG, Accused-Appellant.

G.R. No. 175592, June 14, 2016 - PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. EDISON C. MAGBITANG, Accused-Appellant.

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

EN BANC

G.R. No. 175592, June 14, 2016

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. EDISON C. MAGBITANG, Accused-Appellant.

D E C I S I O N

BERSAMIN, J.:

Every child of sound mind with the capacity to perceive and make known his perception can be believed in the absence of any showing of an improper motive to testify.

The Case

We resolve the appeal of accused Edison C. Magbitang of the July 21, 2006 decision,1 whereby the Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed his conviction for the composite crime of rape with homicide.

Antecedents

Magbitang was charged with rape with homicide under the information filed by the Provincial Prosecutor of Nueva Ecija on February 22, 1999 in the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Guimba, Nueva Ecija, alleging as follows:

That on or about the 25th day of December 1998, in the Municipality of Guimba, Province of Nueva Ecija, Republic of the Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, with lewd design, and taking advantage of the tender age of one [AAA], a seven year old girl, and by means of force and intimidation, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously have carnal knowledge of the latter against her will and without her consent and after having satisfied his bestial lust, the accused, with intent to kill, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously strangle the neck and choke the child victim to death, to the damage and prejudice of her family and heirs, in such amount as may be awarded to them under the Civil Code of the Philippines.

CONTRARY TO LAW.2ChanRoblesVirtualawlibrary

Evidence for the State shows that at around 5 p.m. of December 25, 1998, 7-year old AAA3 asked permission from her mother, BBB, to go to a nearby store. BBB allowed her daughter to leave the house, but the child did not return home. Later that evening, the child's lifeless body was found by the riverbank. The post-mortem examination of her cadaver revealed that she had succumbed to asphyxiation, and that there were "incidental findings compatible to rape."4 The lone witness to what had befallen AAA was 6-year old CCC, who recalled in court that he and AAA had been playing when Magbitang approached AAA; and that Magbitang brought AAA to his house. CCC testified on re-direct examination that he had witnessed Magbitang raping AAA (inasawa), as well as burning her face with a cigarette (sininit-sinit).5

Magbitang, denying the accusation, claimed that he had attended a baptismal party on December 25, 1998, and had been in the party from 4:00 p.m.to 5:00 p.m.; that from the party he had gone looking for his nephew to have the latter tend to his watermelon farm; that he had returned home by around 6 p.m.; that at around 7:30 p.m., he had gone to his farm to check on his nephew; and that he and his wife had remained in the farm until 4 a.m. of the following day.6

Ruling of the RTC

In its decision rendered on April 22, 2003,7 the RTC found Magbitang guilty beyond reasonable doubt of rape with homicide, disposing as follows:

WHEREFORE, finding the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged, this court hereby sentences him to death and to pay the heirs of [AAA], the following

1. P100,000.00 in actual damages for the death of Rachelle Mendoza, and

2. P50,000.00 in moral damages.

SO ORDERED.8

The RTC held that CCC had the capacity to observe, recollect and communicate what he had witnessed; hence, he was entitled to credence. It ruled that sufficient circumstantial evidence pointing to Magbitang as the author of the rape with homicide existed in the records considering his being the last person seen with AAA; that he had admitted leaving the drinking session at the party around 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m., thereby substantiating CCC's testimony; and that AAA's lifeless body had been found at the back of his house.

Ruling of the CA

On appeal, the CA affirmed the conviction. It agreed with the RTC that CCC was a competent witness despite his tender age because he showed his capacity to observe, recollect and communicate whatever he had witnessed; that CCC, being only a child, was not expected to give the exact details of the incident he had witnessed; that CCC was able to positively identify Magbitang during the trial as the culprit;9 and that the evidence adduced by the Defense consisted only of the uncorroborated and self-serving testimony by Magbitang.

Issues

In this appeal, Magbitang contends that the CA committed the following reversible errors, to wit:

I

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN GIVING CREDENCE TO THE MATERIALLY INCONSISTENT TESTIMONY OF THE 6-YEAR OLD WITNESS [CCC].

II

THE LOWER COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED-APPELLANT OF RAPE WITH HOMICIDE DEPSITE THE FACT THAT THE LATTER'S GUILT WAS NOT PROVEN BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT.

III

THE LOWER COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED-APPELLANT OF RAPE WITH HOMICIDE BASED ON CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE.10

Ruling of the Court

We sustain the conviction but modify the penalty.

To start with, the Court generally defers to the factual findings of the trial court by virtue of the latter's better position to observe and determine matters of credibility of the witnesses, having heard the witnesses and observed their deportment during trial.11 This deference becomes firmer when the factual findings of the trial court were affirmed by the intermediate reviewing court. The Court does not disturb such factual findings unless the consideration of certain facts of substance and value that were plainly overlooked or misappreciated by the lower courts could affect the outcome of the case.12

A review of the records persuades the Court to declare that the RTC and the CA correctly appreciated the evidence adduced herein. Hence, their factual findings are upheld.

Secondly, Magbitang's contention that CCC, being a child of tender age, was not a competent witness because his testimony was filled with inconsistencies and suffered from improbabilities was unfounded.

Under the Rules of Court, a child may be a competent witness, unless the trial court determines upon proper showing that the child's mental maturity is such as to render him incapable of perceiving the facts respecting which he is to be examined and of relating the facts truthfully.13 The testimony of the child of sound mind with the capacity to perceive and make known the perception can be believed in the absence of any showing of an improper motive to testify.14 Once it is established that the child fully understands the character and nature of an oath, the testimony is given full credence.15 In the case of CCC, the Defense did not persuasively discredit his worthiness and competence as a witness. As such, the Court considers the reliance by the trial court on his recollection fully justified.

And, thirdly, we dismiss the argument of Magbitang that the trial court erroneously relied on circumstantial evidence to establish his criminal responsibility for the rape with homicide. The evidence of guilt against him consisted in both direct and circumstantial evidence. The direct evidence was supplied by CCC's testimony, while the circumstantial evidence corroborated CCC's testimony. Such evidence, combined, unerringly pointed to Magbitang, and to no other, as the culprit.

In this connection, it is worth reminding that circumstantial evidence is not necessarily weaker in persuasive quality than direct evidence. As the Court said in People v. Villaflores:16

We have often conceded the difficulty of proving the commission of rape when only the victim is left to testify on the circumstances of its commission. The difficulty heightens and complicates when the crime is rape with homicide, because there may usually be no living witnesses if the rape victim is herself killed. Yet, the situation is not always hopeless for the State, for the Rules of Court also allows circumstantial evidence to establish the commission of the crime as well as the identity of the culprit. Direct evidence proves a fact in issue directly without any reasoning or inferences being drawn on the part of the factfinder; in contrast, circumstantial evidence indirectly proves a fact in issue, such that the factfinder must draw an inference or reason from circumstantial evidence.17 To be clear, then, circumstantial evidence may be resorted to when to insist on direct testimony would ultimately lead to setting a felon free.18

The Rules of Court makes no distinction between direct evidence of a fact and evidence of circumstances from which the existence of a fact may be inferred; hence, no greater degree of certainty is required when the evidence is circumstantial than when it is direct. In either case, the trier of fact must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused.19 Nor has the quantity of circumstances sufficient to convict an accused been fixed as to be reduced into some definite standard to be followed in every instance. Thus, the Court said in People v. Modesto;20

The standard postulated by this Court in the appreciation of circumstantial evidence is well set out in the following passage from People vs. Ludday:21 "No general rule can be laid down as to the quantity of circumstantial evidence which in any case will suffice. All the circumstances proved must be consistent with each other, consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty, and at the same time inconsistent with the hypothesis that he is innocent, and with every other rational hypothesis except that of guilt."

Notwithstanding our concurrence with the findings of the RTC and the CA, we reduce the penalty of death to reclusion perpetua in view of the intervening enactment of Republic Act No. 9346,22 but without eligibility for parole of Magbitang.23

Conformably with the ruling in People v. Jugueta,24 which the Court recently promulgated in order to lay to rest the inconsistencies in the fixing of damages as part of the civil liabilities in crimes, we modify the awards by imposing civil indemnity of P100,000.00; moral damages of P100,000.00; and exemplary damages of P100,000.00 because the penalty of death, although proper, had to be reduced to reclusion perpetua in deference to the application of Republic Act No. 9346.25 In addition, although we delete the actual damages for failure to prove them, the heirs of AAA were entitled to temperate damages of P50,000.00.

Lastly, interest at the rate of 6% per annum shall be charged on all the damages herein awarded reckoned from the finality of this decision.26

WHEREFORE, the Court AFFIRMS the conviction of EDISON C. MAGBITANG for rape with homicide; REDUCES his penalty from death to reclusion perpetua, without eligibility for parole pursuant to Republic Act No. 9346; DELETES the award of actual damages; GRANTS to the heirs of AAA temperate damages of P50,000.00, exemplary damages of P100,000.00, civil indemnity of PI00,000.00, and moral damages of P100,000.00; IMPOSES interest of 6% per annum on all the damages herein awarded reckoned from the finality of this decision; and ORDERS the appellant to pay the costs of suit.

SO ORDERED.cralawlawlibrary

Sereno, C.J., Carpio, Velasco, Jr., Leonardo-De Castro, Perez, Mendoza Reyes, Leonen, and Caguioa, JJ., concur.
Brion, Peralta, and Jardeleza, JJ., on official leave.
Del Castillo, J., on wellness leave.
Perlas-Bernabe, J., no part due to prior participation in the Court of Appeals.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Endnotes:


1 Rollo, pp. 3-21; penned by Associate Justice Hakim S. Abdulwahid (retired), with Associate Justice Andres B. Reyes, Jr. (now Presiding Justice) and Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe (now a Member of the Court) concurring.

2 Records, p. 1.

3 Pursuant to Republic Act No. 9262 (Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004), and its implementing rules, the real names of the victims, as well those of their immediate family or household members, are withheld, and fictitious initials are instead used to represent them, to protect their privacy. See People v. Cabalquinto, G.R. No. 167693, September 19, 2006, 502 SCRA 419,

4 Exhibit "A," RTC records, p. 6.

5 TSN, February 6, 2002, p. 3.

6 TSN, April 24, 2002, pp. 2-6

7 CA rollo, pp. 24-27; penned by Judge Ismael P. Casabar..

8 Id. at 27

9Rollo, pp. 16-19.

10 CA rollo, p. 42.

11People v. Ending, G.R. No. 183827, November 12, 2012, 685 SCRA 180, 190.

12People v. Mangune, G.R. No. 1 86463, November 14, 2012, 685 SCRA 578, 588-589.

13 Section 21(b), Rule 130, Rules of Court.

14 People v. Gacho, G.R. No. 60990, 23 September 1983, 124 SCRA 677.

15 Id.

16 G.R. No. 184926, April 11, 2012, 669 SCRA 365, 384.

17 Id., citing People v. Ramos, G.R. No. 104497, January 18, 1995, 240 SCRA 191, 198; citing Gardner, Criminal Evidence, Principles, Cases and Readings, West Publishing Co., 1978 ed., p. 124.

18 Id., citing Amora v. People, G.R. No. 154466, January 28, 2008, 542 SCRA 485, 491.

19 Id., citing People v. Ramos, supra, note 14; citing Robinson v. State, 18 Md. App. 678, 308 A2d 734 (1973).

20 No. L-25484, September 21,1968, 25 SCRA 36, 41.

21 61 Phil. 216, 221-222(1935).

22 An Act Prohibiting the Imposition of Death Penalty in the Philippines (repealing Republic Act 8177 otherwise known as the Act Designating Death by Lethal Injection, Republic Act 7659 otherwise known as the Death Penalty Law and All Other Laws, Executive Orders and Decrees).

23 Section 3, R.A. No. 9346.

24People v. Jugueta, G.R. No. 202124, April 5, 2016.cralawred

25 See People v. Notarion, G.R. No. 181493, August 28, 2008, 563 SCRA 618, 63 1.

26People v. Combate, G.R. No. 189301, December 15, 2010, 638 SCRA 797, 824; Nacar v. Gallery Frames, G.R. No. 189871, August 13, 2013, 703 SCRA 439.
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