A battle for sympathy

Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona will not take the witness stand “unless the need arises,” his lawyers say. Instead it is his wife, Cristina Corona, who will answer questions about his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth. One can only marvel at this manifestation of spousal sacrifice. It is, after all, the husband who is on trial here, not the wife. Mrs. Corona’s readiness to take the blows for her husband is admirable. It affirms the Filipino wife’s role as the rock of the family. But what does it say of Mr. Corona?

The defense lawyers who thought of this strategy may have been encouraged by the belief that women generally make better witnesses. Indeed, the legendary Boston lawyer Rufus Choate once gave this advice to novices: “Never cross-examine a woman. It is of no use. They cannot disintegrate the story they have once told.” In addition, the defense may have also taken into account the sympathy that our culture instantaneously confers on the wife who quietly bears all the problems brought into the family by its members.

But the plan can easily backfire. It is Mr. Corona who direly needs to clear himself of any doubt about his integrity and character. He has said, time and again, that he would like the public to get to know him better. But why is he now relying on his wife to do the explaining of his SALNs before the impeachment court? The expected public empathy for Mrs. Corona as a witness may not necessarily benefit him. Indeed, it may only reinforce the impression that he is incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions, and that he suffers from an egoism that preys on others’ willingness to take up the cudgels for him.

As the country’s chief magistrate, he, of all people, must know the power of questions. He sees it every day in his court. He would have seen how stressful the whole act of testifying has been for many of the witnesses in this ongoing trial. If he cares for his wife, he would think twice before allowing her to be subjected to the rigors of cross-examination.

“All questioning,” writes the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, “is a forcible intrusion. When used as an instrument of power it is like a knife cutting into the flesh of the victim. The questioner knows what there is to find, but he wants actually to touch it and bring it to light. He sets to work on the internal organs with the sureness of a surgeon. But he is a special kind of surgeon, one who keeps his victim alive in order to find out more about him and, instead of anaesthetizing, deliberately stimulates pain in certain organs in order to find out what he wants to know about the rest of the body.”

The defense lawyers wish to spare their client this ordeal, and so they offer his wife instead. This reverse gallantry is, to say the least, perplexing. For it is not Mrs. Corona who presides over the high court. It is not her fitness to dispense justice that is being questioned but her husband’s. It is the impeached Chief Justice who owes the nation clear explanations, not she. The nation is waiting to hear him explain himself under oath, before the right forum, and not in selective media appearances where, as a guest, he can afford to be vague and elusive.

One can only suppose that the option to let his wife testify in his place is not the personal preference of this Batangueño (as he refers to himself when he’s fired up) but that of his lawyers. This strategy may have another reason behind it: His lawyers do not want to give his interrogators the chance to assert their power over him. They know this can be done in many different ways, crudely or with feigned courtesy. A situation like this is not easy to manage. If their client gives in to provocation, he may lose any chance of gaining sympathy. If he allows himself to be browbeaten, he may lose what little is left of the respect that inheres in his position.

If, setting aside all caution, Mr. Corona prevails on his lawyers to let him personally appear before the impeachment tribunal and defend himself, he has to be prepared to forget that he is chief justice. He must remain cool and deferential. He must keep in mind that, more than his title, it is the honor of his name that he is in danger of losing. He must realize that the more he clings to his office, the more he loses. If he can project openness and decency, traits that are uncommon in the world of politics, he may get to keep not only his name but also the esteem of his people.

My unsolicited advice to the Chief Justice, therefore, is for him to personally appear before his accusers, as he proudly did on the opening day of the trial. If he has nothing to hide, then there is nothing to expose. This is the best time to show the Filipino people what kind of a person the Chief Justice is. He has told the media more than once that this is not his personal fight, that he is only an incidental player, and that the real fight is the fight to preserve the independence of the judiciary. That’s a great line. Mr. Corona can put some flesh to it by taking an indefinite leave from his office while he is on trial. For good measure, he can announce this when he takes the witness stand. Doing so would communicate the one message he should have delivered to the nation on Day One: “I am an honorable person. I will not use my office to shield myself from accountability.”

Thus stripped of power, his name being his only protection, he can look at his accusers in the eye and not fear they can diminish him further. In the final analysis, a trial like this is not so much a quest for truth as it is a battle for sympathy. As Canetti puts it: “The man on trial stands in a relation of hostility to his examiner … He will escape only if he succeeds in convincing him that he is not an enemy.”

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