JUDGES STILL WORRY

By: Ador Vincent S. Mayol January 22,2014 - 11:52 AM

One year after Canadian went on shooting spree, security a concern in Palace of Justice

A judge in a black robe bangs the gavel to start the hearing.

Lawyers dressed in barong Tagalog or coat and tie sit on plastic chairs.
The trial gets underway under one of several tents in the parking lot of the Cebu Palace of Justice.

On a rainy day, they all get wet from water entering the open sides.
The emergency setup, the result of the Oct. 15 earthquake, forces the wheels of justice to turn in awkward ways.

One year after a shooting rampage by a Canadian retiree claimed the lives of a lawyer and a doctor in the Palace of Justice, security remains a high concern among court personnel.

Although security was tightened after the shooting, court employees and judges were unprepared for the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that left cracks in the building and forced occupants to move out.

“I believe it is too risky for us to stay outside the Palace of Justice. Now the area to be secured is very wide. I think we should be transferred to a suitable building,” said Regional Trial Court Judge Macaundas Hadjirasul yesterday.

Hadjirasul, who heads the security committee of the Palace of Justice, admitted that judges have become easy targets for lawless elements as they are exposed to the elements.

A decision by the Supreme Court’s Court Administrator to rent a commercial building in the North Reclamation Area still doesn’t have the full support of judiciary staff, who worry that the Quimonda IT Center is far from jeepney routes and is in a location where snatchers and petty thieves are known to prey on pedestrians.
Last night, judges and lawyers had a dialogue at the Marco Polo Plaza with representatives from the High Court and the Department of Justice to discuss their pending transfer.

ONE YEAR

Meanwhile, some court officials worry about the risk of getting ambushed by parties who have lost a case or an angry litigant, like John Pope.

A year ago today, Pope, a Canadian expatriate shocked employees of the Palace of Justice when he shot dead Dr. Rene Rafols and his cousin-lawyer Jubian Achas as they waited for a hearing to start at the Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC) Branch 6.

Pope, who was embroiled in a long-running neighborhood dispute with the doctor, then walked over to another office and shot a female prosecutor in the head.

Cornered by a policeman in the corridor, Pope was disabled with a gunshot but managed to turn the gun on himself and fire a shot to his temple.
Security at the old courthouse was tightened. Body frisking and inspection of bags at the entrance of the Palace of Justice was implemented until the Oct. 15 earthquake displaced occupants

of the building.

Today 12 security guards work in shifts to ensure peace and order at the Palace of Justice and its parking spaces where hearings are conducted in tents. At least eight policemen were fielded in the area to beef up security.

But Judge Hadjirasul said the security force isn’t enough especially that the tents are beside an access road inside the Capitol compound.

“I’m concerned about the other judges,” he said.
All except two of 22 RTC judges and 8 Municipal Trial Court in Cities judges hold office under tents.

Two family court judges, James Stewart Ramon Hmalaloan of Branch 24 is staying at the lobby of the Legislative Building nearby and RTC Judge Ester Veloso occupies space in the ground floor of the deserted Palace of Justice.

Arturo Batoctoy, a court employee, said the tent location was vulnerable to an ambush.

“Delikado kaayo. Kuyaw man nang dapita kay daplin man gud sa dalan. (It’s very dangerous to conduct hearings in tents because these are just along the road),” he said.
Some furniture was transferred to Quimonda IT Center starting December 8 but two floors still have to be renovated for the courtrooms.

“As of now, Quimonda is still being repaired. Maybe it will be finished this February,” said RTC Executive Judges Soliver Peras, who negotiated for the rented space. He said they would all transfer as soon as facilities in the new site are ready.

PART OF THE JOB

Assistant City Prosecutor Maria Theresa Casiño, the only survivor in the January 22, 2013 shooting at the Palace of Justice, said the risk was part of their job.

“It’s really a security risk for all of us to stay in tents outside the Palace of Justice. It can’t be denied,” she told CDN yesterday but said they had no other choice for now but to conduct inquest proceedings in outdoor tents.

“We just have to make do with what is available for us. Well, risk is part of our job. I was shot inside the Palace of Justice which was supposed to be secure. We have trust in the Lord who shall protect us,” she said.

She said she finds no need to carry a firearm for protection.

“I still have small kids who are so curious. If I’ll be carrying a gun, that would mean bringing it at home,” she said, a risk she doesn’t want to take.

“Maybe, I may carry a firearm soon but not now,” she said.

“I’m not afraid. But I fear for my fellow prosecutors. We know that risk is always part of our job as prosecutors. This is the profession we chose,” she said.

Casiño was among the targets of Pope since she was handling a case of grave threats filed against the Canadian.

SECOND LIFE

In an interview last month, Casiño said she considers this time “my second life” and that the fact that she survived a three-hour surgery to remove a slug in her brain was a “miracle”.

She reported back to work in April last year but still undergoes therapy two to three times a week and takes medication to control possible seizures, the effect of the gunshot wound in the occipital lobe of her brain.

“I’m generally okay,” she said but has gaps in her vision and can’t see clearly in her right eye. She still feels numbness in the left part of her body.
Asked if she has forgiven Pope, Casiño said “I really don’t know.”

“How can I forgive someone who has not asked forgiveness? I don’t hate him but I don’t love him either. I just have an empty feeling towards him. I don’t know if that’s a sign of forgiveness,” she said.

Supreme Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez ordered the immediate transfer of all court workers and judges to Qimonda IT Center in a Dec. 9, 2013 memorandum.

He cited the “urgency of the situation and the risk the judges and court personnel must contend with as they are presently housed under makeshift tents and are thus exposed to the elements.”

Court records needed for the day have to be carried out from storage. Handcuffed prisoners sit in benches waiting for their cases to be called.
Sometimes, electric fans are brought to the tents when the sun is hot and conditions are stuffy.

“This is not convenient at all. But there is nothing we can do under the present circumstances. We just have to continue hearing cases and dispense justice accordingly,” said RTC Judge Bienvenido Saniel of Branch 20.

“Cases have to move and lawyers need to practice their profession.”

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