The Supreme Court (SC) has overturned a Sandiganbayan ruling and acquitted actor and former chair and chief executive officer of the Optical Media Board (OMB) Ronald “Ronnie” Ricketts of graft charges.
However, in a decision promulgated last March 16, but made public only on July 28, the SC upheld the anti-graft court’s March 15, 2019 decision that convicted Glenn S. Perez, OMB computer operator, of graft for which he was sentenced to a prison term of six years day to eight years with perpetual disqualification from holding public office.
The Sandiganbayan also acquitted OMB executive directors Cyrus Paul S. Valenzuela, Manuel J. Mangubat, and Joseph D. Arnaldo for failure of the prosecution to prove the respondents’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“The appeal of Ricketts is meritorious. We find that the evidence against him is mere hearsay. The prosecution failed to prove his participation in the crime beyond reasonable doubt,” the SC decision penned by Associate Justice Ricardo R. Rosario ruled.
“However, the appeal of Perez is without merit. Having been caught red-handedly taking out the seized items without written authorization, Perez’ justifications for his actions are irrelevant since the mere act of taking out and returning the seized items without written authority from the 0MB amounts to giving an unwarranted benefit to the owner of the seized items,” the SC said.
In reversing the anti-graft court’s decision, the SC stressed that it has always supported the government’s efforts to stamp out graft and corruption in the service. “
Indeed, we have always held that the tentacles of greed must be cut and the offenders punished. However, this objective can only be accomplished if the evidence adduced by the prosecution, which must closely be scrutinized under the lens of the spirit that animates RA 3019, passes the test of moral certainty,” the high court said.
“Where doubt lingers, as in this case, the Court is mandated to uphold the presumption of innocence guaranteed by our Constitution to the accused. As a rule, findings of fact of the Sandiganbayan, as a trial court, are accorded great weight and respect. However, in cases where there is a misappreciation of facts, the Court (SC) will not hesitate to reverse the conclusions reached by the trial court,” it added.
“At all times, the Court must be satisfied that in convicting the accused, the factual findings and conclusions of the trial court meet the exacting standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Otherwise, the presumption of innocence must be favored, and exoneration must be granted as a matter of right,” the SC said.
The tribunal pointed out that at the very least, the testimony of the security guard should not have been made the sole basis to conclude that Ricketts intentionally took part in the planning, preparation, and execution of the alleged conspiracy to defraud the government by ordering Perez to release the seized items.
“There must be other positive and clear evidence showing each of the accused’s conscious and intentional participation in the planning, preparation and execution of the crime charged,” the SC emphasized.
Court records showed that the graft charges arose from Ricketts’ alleged instructions to a team of OMB agents to raid and seize 127 boxes and two sacks of pirated DVDs and VCDs as well as one video recording unit at an establishment along Carlos Palanca Street in Quiapo, Manila on May 27, 2010.
The confiscated materials were brought to the OMB office but, later, and, allegedly upon the instruction of Ricketts, 121 of the 127 boxes of the pirated materials were hauled out of the OMB premises and loaded into an Isuzu truck marked “Sky High Marketing.” No charges were filed by the OMB against any person or entity thereafter.
On July 18, 2019, the Field Investigation Office (FIO) of the Office of the Ombudsman filed a complaint before the Sandiganbayan against Ricketts and four other OMB officials for allegedly giving unwarranted benefit, advantage or preference to Sky High Marketing Corporation, thru manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence, by allowing and causing the release of the confiscated paraphernalia.
In his defense, Ricketts asserted that it is the OMB board, and the agents or investigators of the Legal Department of the agency, who are duty- bound to initiate the filing of the criminal and administrative cases, and that there was no proof that he conspired with his co-accused to commit the offense charged.
Despite his arguments, Ricketts and Perez were convicted, prompting them to appeal their conviction before the SC.
Ricketts argued before the SC that the affidavits of the firm’s security guard and of Valenzuela as to his alleged participation are not independently relevant statements and are, therefore, inadmissible in evidence for being hearsay.
According to him, the prosecution failed to prove the existence of conspiracy beyond reasonable doubt, and to prove all the elements of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act) for which he was charged.
For his part, Perez argued that since the search and seizure were done without a search warrant, there was no prejudice to the government since the seized items were inadmissible in evidence.
He also said that since the ownership of seized items was not established and even if no charges were filed against Sky High Marketing the government suffered no damage.
“However, from the evidence adduced by the prosecution, the Court finds that no clear nexus exists to prove a unity of action and purpose between and among Ricketts and Perez to give unwarranted benefit to a private party resulting in damage to the government.
Therefore, Ricketts should have been acquitted and the case against him dismissed. After a judicious examination of the records and submissions of the parties in this case, the Court finds that the facts and evidence presented by the prosecution failed to prove the guilt of Ricketts beyond reasonable doubt,” the SC held.
“Wherefore, the appeal of Ronal N. Ricketts is granted, and the Decision dated March 15, 2019 of the Sandiganbayan (Special Fourth Division) in Case No. SB-15-CRM-0132 for violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019, and its Resolution dated November 15, 2019 denying reconsideration thereof, are affirmed with modification. Accused-appellant Ronald N. Ricketts is acquitted for failure of the prosecution to prove conspiracy and his guilt of the offense charged beyond reasonable doubt,” the SC said.
The SC also lifted the hold departure order issued against Ricketts and set aside and his cash bond is released, subject to the usual accounting and auditing procedures.
“The Sandiganbayan’s Decision finding accused-appellant Glenn S. Perez guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019, as amended, and sentencing him to suffer the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment of six (6) years and one (1) day as minimum and eight (8) years as maximum, with perpetual disqualification from holding public office is affirmed in in toto,” it said.
“Let entry of judgment with respect to Ronald N. Ricketts be issued immediately. So ordered,” the SC added.