MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — The Supreme Court Third Division has ordered the dismissal of 2 criminal cases filed by model Deniece Cornejo against comedian-host Vhong Navarro, after finding that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had basis to junk the raps due to inconsistent allegations.
“Having determined that the DOJ committed no grave abuse of discretion in affirming the finding of lack of probable cause against Navarro, the Court, in the interest of justice and fair play, is constrained to dismiss the subject Informations against him,” the February 8 decision said, penned by SC Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting.
Fellow-Third Division Justices Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, Samuel Gaerlan, Japar Dimaampao, and Maria Filomena Singh concurred in the ruling.
The two informations the court referred to are the rape by sexual intercourse and acts of lasciviousness cases which the Court of Appeals, in July 2022, ordered prosecutors to file in court.
In 2018 and 2020, the Department of Justice dismissed Cornejo’s complaints on the ground that the allegations suffered credibility issues but the CA Fourteenth Division reversed the rulings, saying “it falls upon the trial court to determine who between Navarro and Cornejo speaks the truth.”
In ordering the dismissal of cases against Navarro, SC said the appellate court erred in reversing the DOJ's decision to junk the cases.
The determination of probable cause during the preliminary investigation, it said, is an executive function of the public prosecutor.
“By reason of the executive nature of this prosecutorial prerogative, courts cannot compel the prosecution of a person against whom the public prosecutor has found no sufficient evidence to establish probable cause for indictment. Courts cannot substitute their own judgment for that which is fundamentally in the domain of the Executive branch,” it explained.
The only exception, it said, is when there is grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of the prosecutors.
But the high court said the prosecutor’s findings “appear to have been arrived at objectively” and according to the legal yardsticks of how to conduct a preliminary investigation.
“Prosecutors are duty-bound to make a realistic judicial appraisal of the merits of the case during preliminary investigation,” the court ruled.
The Third Division enumerated all the inconsistencies in Cornejo's 3 affidavits against Navarro:
- She alleged in her first complaint that nothing happened on January 17, 2014, but claimed in her second and third complaints that Navarro raped her.
- She claimed Navarro raped her on January 22, 2014, in her first complaint but failed to allege it in her second complaint only to say in her third complaint that there was an attempt to rape her.
The first affidavit was executed on January 29, 2014, the second on February 27, 2014, and the third on October 16, 2015.
“As underscored by the DOJ, a preliminary investigation is not a hit-or-miss endeavor where one could file complaints one after another until he or she gets the desired results. Justice and fair play dictate that Cornejo should not be permitted to materially change her theory in her two previous complaints in a deliberate attempt to address or rectify the weaknesses of her theories, as pointed out by the prosecutor in the dismissal thereof, or worse, supplant or add new material allegations,” the court said.
The court added that while there is deference to a trial court's findings as to the credibility of a witness, it does not apply to "inconsistent allegations which are too glaring and manifest to be missed."
Cornejo's inconsistencies, it said, were “not trivial, minor or inconsequential.”
The high court relied largely on the complaints of Cornejo in resolving the cases, although it did note the lack of physical injuries during the first meeting when she supposedly physically resisted Navarro’s advances.
According to the court, Cornejo tried to explain this by claiming in her third complaint that she took a sip from the glass of wine, which she did not allege in her first 2 complaints.
The court however did not even go to the extent of discussing CCTV footage on January 22, 2014, from Cornejo’s condominium unit which showed Navarro stepping out of the elevator to go to Cornejo’s unit at 21:59:50 (actual time: 10:39 pm) while Cornejo stepped inside the elevator at 22:00:53 (actual time: 10:40 pm) or around a minute after Navarro stepped out.
The SC Third Division acknowledged the Navarro case is a chance to clarify the legal yardsticks in preliminary investigations, such as:
- What evidence may prosecutors consider during preliminary investigations in determining whether to file a case in court?
- If prosecutors find inconsistencies in the allegations, are they precluded from making findings on the ground that credibility issues are best determined by a full-blown trial in court?
- Would evaluation touching on the credibility of evidence be too high a standard for filing of cases in court, deviating from the probability of the commission of the crime?
“Under the circumstances, the CA simply had no basis to reverse the prosecutor's finding of lack of probable cause. On the contrary, it is the CA that disregarded such parameters when it substituted its own judgment for that of the prosecutor's finding of lack of probable cause against Navarro,” it concluded.
Navarro was released on bail in December 2022 after nearly three months of detention.
- with a report from Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News
Supreme Court, Vhong Navarro, Deniece Cornejo, rape, acts of lasciviousness, CA, Court of Appeals, DOJ, Department of Justice, ANC promo