Three years for stealing a sandwich

LAST week’s column mentioned a 61-year-old detainee who languished in jail for three years for committing the crime of theft (of a sandwich called Bentelog worth, as the brand name suggests, P20).

Juan Sablaysana (not his real name) could be the Filipino version of Jean Valjean, the main character in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who was hunted down by the police all his life for stealing two loaves of bread.

On June 15, 2016, Juan stole (“willfully, unlawfully and feloniously,” according to the charge sheet filed by the prosecutor) the sandwich from a 13-year-old student who, along with fellow students, were having snacks in front of a store in downtown Manila. The student filed a complaint with the police, who endorsed the case (estafa/swindling) to the prosecutor.

On June 21, 2016, the prosecutor charged Juan with the crime of theft before Branch 2 of the Manila Trial Court (MTC). Juan could have posted the bail of P2,000 for his temporary freedom; but he was unable to produce the amount, which is rather obvious for one who stole a sandwich to get a meal. Three months later, the MTC dismissed the case (prior to this no prosecution witnesses appeared in three separately scheduled hearings) and ordered Juan’s provisional release.

Separately, a 19-year-old attendant of the store where the crime happened filed a criminal case (also theft) with the Regional Trial Court (RTC). On July 7, 2016, Branch 9 of the Manila RTC ordered Juan’s transfer from police detention to the Manila City Jail. According to reports, the RTC eventually decided to convict the accused, sentencing him to 10 days of imprisonment.

One crime, two cases, two courts and two supposed release orders, but Juan remained in jail. As if his misery were not enough, Juan suffered a stroke while “over-serving” his sentence. He only had his fellow inmates (among other worldly saviors, who rushed to his help) to thank for his getting up alive the next day.

Juan could have “overstayed” even more, except that a doctoral candidate, Raymund Narag, who, while working on his dissertation, got around to interviewing the inmate and some jail paralegals. This led to inquiries with the courts concerned, whose staff were stunned to find out that the release orders that they had issued three years earlier remained unimplemented. Juan finally walked free a week after Narag (the author of a newly published book Behind Bars at New Bilibid Prison: A Call for Integrated Reform), interviewed him.

I brought up Juan’s story to highlight how government involving two of its three branches mishandled this case. To provide contrast, I also mentioned how the court cases that involved the rich and the famous ended up happily for them.

Nonagenarian former first lady Imelda Marcos, who was found guilty in a P10-billion graft case and ordered imprisoned, but later granted bail of P300,000; and former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who was allowed to post bail for an otherwise non-bailable multimillion-peso plunder charge, were both allowed to walk free for “humanitarian” reasons.

Then there was the arrest and detention of Elmer Cordero, 72, one of the Piston 6 jeepney drivers who violated mass gathering restrictions during the early days of community quarantine. When asked by certain groups to consider the release of Cordero on humanitarian grounds, Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said in one of his media briefings that he (Cordero) must face the charges against him “regardless of age…old age does not exempt a person from pending charges.”

The latest assault to sanity is the case involving Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, a United States Marine, who was convicted for the murder of transgender Jennifer Laude. Court records show that the Marine and the victim had checked into an Olangapo motel in October 2015, most likely for sex. Minutes later, Pemberton was seen to have left the room. Laude was later found dead in the bathroom.

Pemberton was arrested and detained on a murder charge, but eventually convicted for homicide, a lesser offense in the language of law. Early this month he was released from prison, pardoned by President Rodrigo Duterte himself on the basis of an authority delegated to him by the people. Pemberton served time for a period that was shorter by at least half of the full length of the penalty imposed on him. In convicting the accused of homicide instead of murder, the court did not find damning elements like treachery, premeditation, etc., in the accused but in the victim, saying Laude “did not reveal [to Pemberton] her gender identity.” The downgrading of the charge was in itself contentious, slammed by no less than the same Harry Roque who was then acting as counsel for the victim’s family. He was reported to have said: “It is not right that these mitigating circumstances showed his bigotry towards a transgender woman and that the bigotry itself was the reason he killed her.”

Looking at the documents pertaining to Juan’s case, one will find a veritable forest of names and signatures. Police station chiefs, assistants, investigators, city prosecutors, assistants, public attorneys, judges, clerks, jail officials, wardens — whose combined per minute salaries could amount to six digits — spent time and effort on a case that was worth P20. Worse, it took somebody not paid by taxpayers’ money to discover that Juan should have been released three years earlier than when he was actually set free.

Not saying that the imputed value makes a crime less unlawful, but government needs to make this fair to all, the sovereign taxpayers not being the least significant in the equation.

Who knows — somebody, in desperation, may just seek to get locked in for a meal that one does not need to steal.

Questions that can be answered on a first-person basis only beg for airtime. For next week, we will try to hear what Juan, his victims, the court and jail personnel, among others, have to say five years after the Philippine version of Les Miserables happened.

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