CA justice who freed Joel Reyes retiring early

Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro

MANILA — The Court of Appeals (CA) justice who penned the decision clearing former Palawan governor Joel Reyes in the killing of environmentalist and broadcaster Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa in January 2011 is retiring early from the judiciary.

An insider told The STAR that Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro was set to retire on Feb. 7, 2019 upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 but opted not to finish his tenure.

The source revealed that the magistrate will instead retire next month or one year ahead of schedule.

“He already informed his coterminous staff that he will retire next month and also advised them to start looking for new jobs now,” said the insider, who requested anonymity due to lack of authority to speak on the matter.

Pizarro will retire after writing the recent decision of the CA’s former 11th Division, which ordered the release of Reyes from jail and dismissal of the murder charge against him before the Puerto Princesa regional trial court (RTC).

Solicitor General Jose Calida questioned the decision and said his office would investigate the ruling that “stinks.” He vowed to elevate the case to the Supreme Court.

In the ruling, the CA granted Reyes’ petition and held that the evidence presented by prosecutors was “not competent” to establish reasonable grounds that he participated in the killing of Ortega.

In nullifying the arrest order against Reyes, the appellate court faulted the RTC for relying on the testimony of Rodolfo Edrad Jr., the former governor’s security escort who had admitted hiring the gunman, Marlon Recamata, to kill Ortega allegedly upon Reyes’ order.

The special division of five justices of the CA division voted 3-2 to acquit Reyes. Pizarro penned the ruling with Associate Justices Danton Bueser and Victoria Paredes concurring, while Associate Justices Maria Filemona Singh and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob dissented.

Pizarro wrote in the ruling: “Call it a second chance afforded him by God or a lucky three-point play for him, to use a common street lingo, or a miracle in his favor, (Reyes) must by all means be exonerated from the charge.”

Pizarro also wrote the CA decision last year that acquitted alleged pork barrel mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles in her serious illegal detention case as well as the decision that junked the compensation claim of about 10,000 human rights victims from the Marcos estate.

In May last year, he wrote the ruling of the CA’s 12th Division that acquitted Napoles of the serious illegal detention case filed by whistle-blower Benhur Luy.
Citing reasonable doubt, it reversed the April 2015 ruling of Makati RTC Branch 150 Judge Elmo Alameda convicting Napoles of serious illegal detention and ordered her release.

In acquitting Napoles, the appellate court said it found the evidence presented by the prosecution “grossly insufficient to sustain a conviction” and that the crime was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

In July last year, Pizarro penned the ruling of the 12th Division dismissing the bid of a group of human rights victims of martial law during the regime of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos to collect some $2 billion in damages.

The ruling held that the decision by the Hawaii district court was not binding as it did not have jurisdiction over the class suit docketed as Class Action No. MDL 840 that included unnamed claimants.

It cited violation of the right to due process of all the unnamed claimants as well as the respondent Marcos estate.

Prosecutors of the Office of the Ombudsman have urged the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan to order the re-arrest and return to jail of former Palawan governor Reyes for his conviction in 2006 on a graft case over the alleged anomalous renewal of the permit of a small-scale mining company.

In an urgent omnibus motion filed on Jan. 8 released to the media yesterday, the ombudsman’s Office of the Special Prosecutor asked the court’s Third Division to cancel the P60,000 bail bond that Reyes earlier posted for his provisional liberty and instead order his commitment to prison.

Malacañang lauded the ombudsman for asking the anti-graft court to order the arrest of Reyes.

“That’s how it should be! I commend (the ombudsman) for the order,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

It was in August last year when the Sandiganbayan Third Division found Reyes guilty of graft and sentenced him to six to eight years in prison.

The case stemmed from Reyes’ alleged anomalous renewal of the permit of a small-scale mining company in 2006, which was found to have been over-extracting mineral ore in the province.

“In spite of his conviction, accused Reyes was allowed bail, over the objections of the prosecution that accused Reyes was and remains to be a flight risk; and notwithstanding the fact that during the trial of the case, his counsel could not produce the accused before the Honorable Court nor categorically state or account for his whereabouts on several occasions,” the prosecution’s motion read.

The new ombudsman motion was made after Reyes was released from the Puerto Princesa City Jail last Friday after the CA dismissed the murder case filed against him in connection with the killing of journalist and environmentalist Ortega.

“With the advent of his recent release from detention, in relation to said murder case… the prosecution deems it necessary to file the foregoing motion,” the prosecution said.

The prosecution cited Reyes’ record of fleeing the country in 2012 just before the Puerto Princesa RTC issued a warrant of arrest against him and his younger brother, former mayor Mario Reyes of Coron, Palawan.

The Reyes brothers were tagged as the masterminds in the killing of Ortega who had been critical of the mining activities in the province. They were arrested at a lavish resort in Phuket, Thailand in September 2015.

“Had it not been for the intervention of Thai authorities, accused Reyes would not have been deported to face the criminal charges against him,” the prosecution said.
“Considering accused Reyes’ previous record and to prevent its recurrence, the cancellation of his bail and his immediate commitment to prison are warranted,” it added.
But despite his conviction, the Sandiganbayan allowed Reyes’ provisional liberty after he posted an additional bond of P30,000 on Aug. 29 on top of the P30,000 bail bond that he posted in 2011 when the case was filed in court.

Reyes’ motion for reconsideration (MR) on the Third Division’s ruling remains pending in court.

“The crime of which he was convicted is bailable. As a matter of general policy pending resolution of the MR, the court allows the accused provisional liberty provided he/she doubles the amount of bond originally required for his/her temporary liberty,” Third Division chairman and Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang earlier explained to reporters.

In a text message to The STAR, Reyes’ lead counsel Demetrio Custodio dismissed the prosecution’s argument in its motion as “absurd.”

“It would be absurd to even think that Gov. Reyes would be a flight risk at this time, considering that he has just scored a very significant legal victory at the Court of Appeals. Why would he mitigate the value of this victory by fleeing?” Custodio said.

Reyes is also facing 36 counts of graft in another division of the Sandiganbayan in connection with the P1.534 billion worth of alleged disadvantageous contracts that the provincial government entered into with various private firms using proceeds from the Malampaya natural gas project.