Justice and public opinion

More than at any other time perhaps, ours is a society that is desperately seeking to recover its faith in the legal system as a source of impartial judgments and stable notions of what is right and what is wrong.  Politics has greatly tarnished the credibility of our courts.  Our people have become cynical, seeing these primarily as instruments of the powerful and the wealthy. In their anger, they sometimes turn to the media to remedy this perceived imbalance.  Yet this is not media’s role: it is not for media to dispense justice.

I am afraid the much-awaited Supreme Court decision on the Vizconde case is one verdict that will not strengthen our people’s faith in the country’s justice system.  Not because it is wrong, but because it is not decisive.  Seven justices voted to reverse the lower courts’ finding of guilt. Four, including the Chief Justice, voted against acquittal, and four — for a variety of reasons — did not participate.

While a split outcome like this is not unusual, the Vizconde ruling can only reinforce doubt in the ability of our magistrates to rise above partisan sympathies and withstand pressure in order to render a trustworthy judgment.  It also shows a disturbing absence of leadership in the present Supreme Court, or of any effort to secure a consensus on so vital a case to convey the clear voice of judicial reason.

On its face, the decision seems to settle nothing.  It falls short of actually pronouncing the innocence of Hubert Webb and his co-accused. The high court has found that the main evidence against them came from an unreliable source, and that Webb’s alibi had not been disputed.  The court is setting them free because their guilt has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

A public that has virtually stood in judgment over this case in the last fifteen years will not be easily appeased by this decision.  They will persist in asking the question that Lauro Vizconde, the husband and father of the victims, has posed to the justices: If these men are innocent, who then is responsible for this gruesome massacre and rape of my family?  But, by the same token, Webb and his companions may well also ask: Who will restore the 15 years that have been stolen from us?

These are questions that need to be asked. Unfortunately, it is not the function of the courts to provide the answers. This is a duty of the law enforcement agencies.  The courts’ function is limited to determining whether there is sufficient evidence to convict persons accused of violating the law.  It may be too late now for the police or the National Bureau of Investigation to revisit the case. So much time has passed, time that has inflicted unimaginable pain on both the accused and the accuser and their families.

This column, which began in 1995, is practically as old as the Vizconde trial. On my second week as an Inquirer columnist, I wrote a piece titled “A family on trial,” (PDI, 07/16/95) which dealt with the public scrutiny of the “moral career” of the accused and their families, particularly the Webb family.  I was concerned that the volume of background information being dug up by media that was seeping into the public consciousness could make it very difficult for any judge to remain focused on the relevant facts.  I quote from that article.

“Soon after Hubert Webb was tagged a suspect in the Vizconde killings, the media became interested in his performance at school. Was he average or outstanding? Did he finish or did he drop out? What kind of schools did he attend?  The answers to these questions were diligently sought almost as if his guilt or innocence depended on them…. One TV news report strung together footage of interviews with the former teachers of these young men. Again the same questions were asked in the same urgent tone: were they good, average or bad students? What did their teachers remember about them? Were they regular boys or recalcitrant goons?”

Freddie Webb, Hubert’s father, was not spared. Then an incumbent senator, Freddie found himself transformed overnight into a lightning rod for popular resentment. The Vizconde massacre unleashed a massive bolt of schadenfreude against him and his family that effectively ended his political career.  He took all of this with amazing equanimity, quietly pulling his family together instead of allowing it to crumble in an extremely difficult time.

I wrote: “In a highly unequal society like ours, public opinion tends to lean in favor of the perceived victims of power. The public gives to the weak the moral upper hand, as a way of balancing the political advantage of the powerful.  Accordingly, children of the new rich and the newly powerful are perceived to be typically spoiled, abusive and anti-social. Their parents are expected to shower them with expensive cars, clothes and money as a way of making up for their absence from their children’s lives. When the children get into trouble, such parents are seen as more concerned with covering up the mess than with reforming their children.”

My uneasiness about public opinion and its relation to justice has grown even more in the last fifteen years. Each time I look at the crestfallen Lauro Vizconde, I cannot help but share the public’s sympathy for a man who could not find justice in our society. Yet when I look at the faces of Freddie and Elizabeth Webb, I get the strong sense that these are people who will not coddle a son regardless of whether he is right or wrong.  Their immense faith in the innocence of their child has borne fruit, and every parent can understand their joy.