Tuesday, January 11, 2005

'Runyon's Law'

'Runyon's Law'

Updated 10:54pm (Mla time) Jan 10, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the January 11, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

DID "Runyon's Law" trigger the roulette that's snarling Cebu courts over a murder involving an affluent cult leader who packs political clout?

Perched on his off-Times Square Algonquin Bar stool, New York journalist Damon Runyon wrote his "law" by dusting off Ecclesiastes' the "race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong," and adding: "But that's the way to bet."

So, did Judges Galicano Arriesgado, Olegario Sarmiento, Generosa Labra, Anacleto Caminade and Ireneo Lee Gako Jr. bet on "Runyon's Law"? They bailed out from trying the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association's Ruben Ecleo Jr. for killing his wife Alona Bacolod.

"Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow, as a haven or refuge for those who otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak or outnumbered," US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote. But the five inhibited themselves from trying PBMA's "Supreme Master."

None will admit attempts to suborn them. All insist they didn't "chicken out." Bloody murders, however, dog those involved in this case. A gunman massacred all but a handful of the Bacolod family. Another assassin gunned down Arbet Santa Ana Yongco, a plucky lady lawyer who prosecuted Ecleo.

The PBMA disowned the triggermen. But Ecleo critic, Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña, sneers at the disclaimers.

Last December, police intercepted eight PBMA members with Armalites, silencers, grenades-and SWAT uniforms and wig disguises. They were heading where Osmeña was to be guest speaker. Most sported PBMA rings. But they denied knowing each other. Neither did they explain how they got in the same van, headed for the same place. The PBMA disowned the botched whatever-it-was plot. But some Kafkaesque sense may emerge by rereading: "Guns, Goons, Gold -- and God." Written by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism's Marites Daguilan-Vitug, the book probes, in one of five studies, "how politics and religion combined into a potent, if not deadly brew, in the Ecleo fiefdom in Surigao."

For four decades, Ruben Sr. was venerated as a "god" by his constituents, many members of the family's PBMA, Vitug writes. On his death in 1987, he bequeathed the community and cult to Junior, "a rock musician, more interested in perfecting his guitar-playing skills than in governing the town of Dinagat."

"Ruben Jr. was arrested for parricide and found positive for shabu." Thousands of followers rose to defend their "divine master." Vitug writes: "The violent clashes between arresting officers and the PBMA left (22) cult members and one policeman dead. Much of it still holds true, though PBMA now boasts an even bigger and more fanatical following."

This inhibition roulette's latest twirl dumped the case on Cebu City's youngest regional trial court judge, Geraldine Faith Econg. She promptly directed the "master" to heed bail restrictions and stay put in Cebu City during the trial, or face arrest or jacked-up bail. Ecleo has shuttled between Manila and Dinagat for "medical tests." Econg also sought independent medical opinion.

"Lawyers spend a great deal of time shoveling smoke," Justice Holmes once said. Thus, they forget that "the life of the law has not been logic but experience."

With their experience of five inhibitions, Ecleo's defense panel now badgers the lady judge to back off. Econg should inhibit since "she showed bias" by denouncing name-your-price offers, the defense argues.

"Hang In There Judge," Sun-Star Daily bannered its report that the Integrated Bar of the Philippines objected to another inhibition bid. There was nothing unethical in the judge's order for Ecleo to stop gadding about, the IBP said. "To give in ... would mean the defense get what they have been wishing for: to shop for a friendly judge and ultimately, to transfer the hearing of this case outside Cebu. We were not born yesterday."

The Supreme Court, in fact, recently dismissed a score of corrupt judges and disciplined others in Cebu. One had a bizarre "Runyon Law" spin-off. The Court fired RTC Branch 60 Judge Ildefonso Suerte for hurriedly convicting, last March, a "fall guy," Cedric Devinadera. Out of the blue, he "confessed" to having helped murder Ecleo's wife. He pinned the blame on the wife's brother. If his testimony is upheld, the "master" would go free.

But a judicial audit found that Suerte took on Ecleo and other cases, despite an earlier Court resolution barring him from handling new charges. The audit supported the IBP's protest that Suerte and public prosecutors knew "there was a pending, and highly publicized, parricide case against Ecleo before another court." The "conviction" was scrapped.

Citizens want a "juez con cojones." A "judge with balls" was the irreverent but admiring compliment paid to Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma in martial law's court of Ferdinand Marcos lapdogs.

The Sandiganbayan anti-graft court's Teresita Leonardo-de Castro is a juez con cojones. She struck down Eduardo Cojuangco's bid to hang on to the coconut levy. So is the Supreme Court's Justice Maria Alicia Martinez. She ruled that Juan Ponce Enrile, Cojuangco and nine others face a P9.6-billion graft charge.

Many are keeping their fingers crossed that Econg will measure up to that model of tough women judges. "A good woman," the Pampango proverb says, "is worth many rubies."


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