Truth-telling in a televised trial

Every witness who appeared at the ongoing presidential impeachment trial was made to swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Yet if there is anything that one learns from watching the trial, it is precisely that witnesses are not always free to tell the truth they want to tell.

Many truths cannot be bared because they are not “material” or “relevant” to the charges and allegations found in the articles of impeachment.  Some truths are only “conditionally admitted”; the witnesses are permitted to tell them but their significance is suspended until their connection to the charges is fully established. The task of deciding which truths are relevant falls on the presiding officer of the court, Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr.

This selective admission of the truth in court proceedings is founded on the principle of fairness.  In our system, an accused person has rights. He must be informed of all the specific allegations against him so that he may prepare his defense beforehand.  At the minimum, he is also entitled to keep private those truths about his life that have no relevance to the offense for which he is charged.

In ordinary criminal trials, the rules are pretty straightforward, allowing little room for discretion and error.  Still, so much depends on the alertness and wisdom of the judge.  The impeachment of a president, however, is anything but ordinary.  The Senate, a political body, is transformed into a court, and the senators assume the role of judges. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial and maintains order, but he does not vote.  He decides, among other things, on questions of relevance and materiality, but his ruling may be overturned by a majority of the senator-judges.  Most importantly, the entire trial unfolds before television cameras.

On its first two weeks, the impeachment trial closely followed the model of a criminal trial.  The lawyers of both panels treaded very carefully in order to avoid objections.  The presiding officer sustained many objections to what were regarded as unfair questions.  Several times he admonished counsels to go straight to the point and to lay the basis for their questions.  One wondered if the truth stood any chance under such a regime of legal form.

But something happened on the 13th day of the trial, toward the end of Equitable-PCIBank officer Clarissa Ocampo’s testimony. The atmosphere in the court dramatically changed when it was the turn of the senator-judges to ask “clarificatory” questions.  It was as if a veil of silence had been ordered lifted.  No objections were raised by the defense.  No questions were barred, and no truths disallowed.  For the first time since the trial began, the truth flowed freely.

The shift, in my view, is a timely acknowledgement of the public character of the trial.  A nationally-televised trial like this cannot afford to be seen as shackling the truth in a chain of procedural norms.  The nation wants to know the whole truth about presidential behavior, and not just whether the prosecution can present enough evidence to warrant his removal from office.

There is, of course, a danger in allowing the truth to be told, only to exclude it later on the ground that it is irrelevant to the case at hand. The court may be able to admonish the senator-judges to ignore such evidence when they form their judgement.  But can it tell the public to erase from their consciousness what they now know about their president?

Suppose the evidence of the “Jose Velarde” account is stricken off the record simply because there was no mention of the existence of such an account in the articles of impeachment.  Would the public then be advised to forget Clarissa Ocampo’s powerful testimony that the president maintained an account under a fictitious name in order to hide sums of money manifestly out of proportion to his legitimate income?  Would the Filipino nation to continue to trust such a president?

The defense panel reminds the senator-judges to confine themselves to the legally admitted evidence.  It has tried to impugn the credibility of main witness Chavit Singson and the women witnesses who corroborated his testimony.  What it is unable to challenge, however, it has tried vigorously to exclude.  It has, for instance, continuously objected to the evidence and testimony given by patently credible witnesses like Clarissa Ocampo, Rufo Colayco, and Manuel Curato. It is clearly preparing the ground for an acquittal based on a technicality rather than on substantive evidence.

By a minority vote and on the basis of a technicality, Joseph Estrada may well escape conviction.  But the many truths that have been revealed about his corrupt ways, whether or not these are covered by the articles of impeachment, have already destroyed his standing as president of the republic.  He has no face left to show before the world community. The truth has caught up with him, but he clings stubbornly to an office he has dishonored.  And he has become desperate.

It is against this background that we must view the Dec. 30 bombings.  To the extent that they tap into the basic insecurity of Filipinos during moments of crisis, the bombings may be seen as an attempt to pre-empt the public outrage that is expected to greet an unjust acquittal.  Yet the demonstrations have shown that the resistance to Estrada will continue for as long as he is president. That is why I fear an acquittal may plunge the country into a deep political crisis from which it may not recover for a long time.


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