Murders, autopsies, and death certificates
Justice Secretary Boying Remulla announced over the weekend that today, Nov. 7, separate murder charges will be filed against a “very high person”—the mastermind (along with several others)—in the brutal killing of radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, aka Percy Lapid, and New Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmate Cristito “Jun Villamor” Palaña. Earlier, however, the lawyers of the Lapid family, Berteni Causing and Danilo Pelagio, pointed to suspended Bureau of Corrections director general Gerald Bantag as the alleged mastermind of this multi-twisted plot reminiscent of Perry Mason mysteries (if the oldies like me will remember).
DAYS AFTER LAPID WAS GUNNED DOWN, Joel Escorial surrendered to the authorities and confessed being the lone motorcycle rider who pulled the trigger. He feared that he himself would be eliminated by the mastermind he had not met personally. So, he claimed. However, he fingered two “middlemen” or “intermediaries,” Palaña and Christopher Bacoto, who contracted him for P550,000 to kill the radio commentator. Both turned out to be inmates of the NBP.
However, twist of twists, a day after Escorial surrendered, Palaña died while being rushed to the nearby NBP Hospital. On the other hand, Bacoto is alleged to be safely secured under the custody of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
Disbelieving “coincidences” and suspecting “foul play,” Remulla ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct an autopsy even though Palaña had already been embalmed. The still unnamed NBI medico-legal expert/s found “no apparent external injuries” on the body thereby implying natural causes for the death.
NOT SATISFIED WITH THE NBI REPORT, Remulla and the Lapid family asked well-regarded Dr. Raquel Fortun, the first Filipino woman forensic pathologist in the Philippines and head of the Department of Pathology of the University of the Philippines Manila, to conduct a second autopsy on the embalmed body of Palaña six days after the NBI examined it.
Fortun confirmed the NBI report that there was no “significant injury” in the internal or external parts of Palaña’s body. Nonetheless, she asserted that Palaña’s death was not triggered by natural causes but by asphyxia or suffocation likely by a plastic bag placed over the victim’s head. She also found “complications in the lungs (pulmonary congestion, edema, and hemorrhages) and schistosomiasis of the liver, a parasitic disease.”
To secure a conviction in criminal proceedings, especially for murder, the credible testimony of credible witnesses is vital. The NBI and police said they have several NBP inmates who would testify for the prosecution. This is probably why Escorial would be included as an accused; later to be discharged from the case and granted immunity as a state witness. However, though the DOJ can propose it, the trial court is granted by law the discretion whether to discharge him from the charges and to admit him as a state witness.
IMPORTANT, TOO, ARE THE TWO AUTOPSIES. Generally, an autopsy, also known as a postmortem examination, is a specialized surgical procedure to determine the cause and manner of death. More particularly, a medico-legal autopsy is performed to answer questions about the identity, cause of death, time of death, circumstances of death, etc., thus helping the law enforcers solve the crime. Autopsy reports may be likened to medico-legal reports; both are similarly bound by the standard evidentiary rules on the admissibility of evidence, authentication, and expert witnesses.
In People v. Tuyor (Oct. 12, 2020), the Supreme Court gave weight and credence to the medico-legal report even if the physician who prepared it was not presented on the witness stand. The Court explained that having been issued by a government doctor, the report fell under the “entry in official records exception” to the hearsay rule and was correctly accorded the prima facie presumption of regularity.
Note that in the Palaña murder, two forensic experts gave separate findings. The NBI autopsy—prepared by a government doctor, thus, admissible in evidence—did not give any cause of death implying no foul play. On the other hand, Fortun found asphyxia to be the cause of death. The news reports did not give any info on what the death certificate said as the cause of death.
Prosecutors in general are wary of presenting autopsies that are inconsistent with the death certificate. In Lagao v. People (Sept 15, 2021), the Court acquitted the accused because of the variance between the death certificate and the autopsy report. It held that the variance “left the evidence in equipoise that warranted the petitioner’s acquittal.”
Under the rules on evidence, a death certificate is a public document and is the best evidence of its content without need of any testimony. It is admissible in evidence even without proof of its due execution and genuineness. The entries found therein are presumed correct unless the party who contests its accuracy can produce positive, contrary evidence.
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