Friday, October 9, 2015

Salvador H. Laurel— "Mr.Public Defender" (1)

In a litigious culture such as ours, lawyers are often seen as the repository of wit and intellect. But in most cases, this notion appears to be false. Today, courtrooms are plagued with a good number of half-witted tawdry attorneys lurking around the halls of justice, preying on clients for alms. What is so frustrating is the fact that most of these grammatically unsound lawyers belong to the public defender’s office of the government. Yes, they are tasked to handle cases of non-paying clients, or what we call “pauper litigants.” Most of these cases involve criminal abuses that are eventually thrown out either for lack of counsel or in a situation where the indigent is the accused─ imprisoned because of ineffective counsel. But there are exceptions of course: dedicated public servants who committed themselves early on to help the poor, those who could not afford the services of a lawyer.

Atty. Salvador H. Laurel —highly educated with a law degree from the University of the Philippines (UP) and a doctoral degree from Yale University —was no ordinary lawyer in the sixties. He had already an established reputation as a trial lawyer before he was fished out of his lucrative corporate practice. Over time Atty. Laurel had lived up to his lawyer’s oath and become the leading public defender of his day. Not too long, renowned columnist Emil P. Jurado hailed him as “Mr. Public Defender,” a moniker he earned for his undying advocacy to help poor litigants in their fight for justice.

Implicit in the due process clause of the Bill of Rights─ the right to be heard─ is “the right to counsel.” In hindsight, Atty. Salvador H. Laurel’s quiescent legacy best exemplifies what the Constitution really means when it elevated “the right to counsel” in the hierarchy of constitutional rights─ zealous legal protection sans pecuniary considerations.

The Banjo Laurel case

His first taste of the limelight as a lawyer came during the celebrated “Laurel-Silva” trial in the mid-60s. It was said that this celebrated case held the public and the print media in captivity for nineteen (19) consecutive days. The uproar of the vicious throng inflamed by the media then could be attributed to the fact that this was no ordinary crime for it involved the scion of one of most respectable political clan in the country— the Laurels of Batangas.

On trial was Atty. Laurel’s nephew, Jaime “Banjo” Laurel, son of Speaker Jose B. Laurel. The case stemmed from a woman named Erlinda Gallegos-Laurel whose lifeless body was found in her apartment riddled with gunshot wounds. Slumped over her was Amado Silva─ her lover─ also with a gunshot wound on his temple. Initially, the findings of the police investigation ruled that it was a clear case of a “murder-suicide”: the victim Erlinda Laurel was shot to death by Amando Silva, who in turn fired the gun on himself. Case closed? Not quite, because a month later, another team of police investigators took over the case and submitted a different report. This time, the crime had morphed into a case of “murder-parricide” and the alleged perpetrator of the crime was no other than victim’s estranged husband, Banjo Laurel.

Atty. Laurel handled the case through and through; from the preliminary investigation up to the trial. When the case was brought to court, it landed on the lap of Judge Jesus P. Morfe of the Court of First Instance (now Regional Trial Court) Manila—a well-known stern magistrate and a true man of law. At the courtroom, a crowd of spectators and news reporters gathered to witness the big event during the first stages of the trial. Though the case dragged on for almost two years, the public remained fascinated until its end.

The Star Brightens

It can be said that the limelight accorded to the “Laurel-Silva”case was largely because of the sterling performance of defense’s lead counsel. The impeccably dressed barrister who consistently won the room was unquestionably, a rising star in the legal profession. Armed with his innate articulate audacity, Atty. Laurel shattered the prosecution’s case that accused Banjo Laurel was behind the crime. Piece by piece, Atty. Laurel pointed out the glaring contradictions of the prosecution’s witnesses. His preparation for the case was astounding. Determined to prove that the prosecution’s evidence were fabricated, he meticulously poured over voluminous pages of documentary evidence along with the testimonies of 28 witnesses and 66 exhibits. Finally, the chicken has come home to roost. After a detailed examination of the expert witness (from the National Bureau of Investigation) by the defense, it was later revealed that the blood-stained bullet imbedded in the ceiling of the crime scene was consistent with the trajectory found in the head of Amando Silva. Simply stated, the physical evidence also proved that based on the relative positions of the bodies of the victims, it would be contrary to evidence to rule out murder-suicide as the nature of the crime.

The incontrovertible physical evidence alone showing a clear case of murder-suicide could have already won plaudit for the young inquisitor. Certainly, physical evidence is regarded as conclusive and the strongest evidence in a criminal trial because for one─ it simply cannot lie. But the lead defense counsel went further. During one of the grueling cross-examinations, Atty. Laurel proceeded to attack the testimonial confession of the prosecution’s principal witness. In what could be considered as the denouement of the trial was Atty. Laurel’s probing questions to the prosecution’s principal witness. It was a feat when the young barrister shook the perplexed witness on the stand, forcing him to retract his confession in open court. Worse, the witness even admitted in “sickening detail” how he was coerced and tortured by police investigators; how he was forced to lie.

With the prosecution’s case dashed to pieces, Atty. Laurel’s legal prowess had ultimately sealed the case in favor of the accused. The trial court eventually acquitted Banjo Laurel and his co-defendant.

To be continued...

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