MANILA — A Manila court has rejected the bid of 10 fraternity members implicated in the death of University of Santo Tomas law student Horacio “Atio” Castillo III to junk the hazing case against them supposedly due to insufficiency of evidence.
The Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 11, on February 24, denied “for lack of merit” the demurrers to evidence filed separately by 10 members of the Aegis Juris fraternity, who are on trial for Castillo’s death in September 2017.
A demurrer to evidence is essentially a motion to dismiss a criminal case on the ground that the evidence presented by the prosecution has failed to sustain a verdict.
If granted, it can lead to acquittal of the accused without the need for them to present evidence.
“The prosecution having established that Horacio died of hazing and that all the accused were present during commission of the crime, it is now incumbent upon the accused to adduce evidence to controvert that of the prosecution or that they prevented the commission of a crime of hazing,” acting presiding judge Shirley Magsipoc-Pagalilauan said.
The accused, led by Arvin Balag who was then head of the fraternity, had claimed “the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence” against them and to discharge its burden to prove that the evidence of guilt is strong.
The other accused are: Mhin Wei Chan, Axel Munro Hipe, Oliver John Audrey Onofre, Joshua Joriel Macabali, Ralph Trangia, Robin Ramos, Jose Miguel Salamat, Danielle Hans Matthew Rodrigo, and Marcelino Bagtang, Jr.
Some of the accused questioned the credibility of the experts presented by the prosecution and sought to create doubt if Castillo had indeed died due to hazing, blaming it instead on hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or the enlargement of the heart.
The others denied there was hazing at all or raised their supposed lack of participation.
They also claimed the primary witness, fellow-Aegis Juris fraternity member Mark Anthony Ventura, allegedly gave inconsistent statements.
In rejecting the claims of the accused, the court found sufficient evidence presented by the prosecution to “warrant a conviction of the accused beyond reasonable doubt” if they could not present evidence sufficient enough to controvert the allegations.
The court said that based on the evidence presented as well as the testimonies of the witnesses, all the elements of hazing were established:
-there was a final initiation rites held on the evening of September 16, 2017 up to the morning of the following day at the library of the Aegis Juris Law Resources Center, which was a requirement before Castillo could become a member of the fraternity;
-Castillo was an applicant to the fraternity; and
-Castillo was subjected to embarrassing or humiliating situations like walking like a duck, singing and dancing “Baby Shark” and taking off of underwear; or subjected to physical or psychological suffering or injury such as being hit with a spatula and paddle.
The court found his arms were punched and hit by a spatula, was made to crawl and beg his “masters,” was made to do pumping and stretching and was eventually paddled.
“After the fifth blow of the paddle, Horacio collapsed on the floor and lost consciousness,” the court said.
Atio, who was then 22 and a freshman law student, was brought to the Chinese General Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
“The attending physician at the Chinese General Hospital found hematoma on both upper extremities and candle drippings on the body of Horacio,” the court said.
“Horacio was found to have died of severe blunt trauma; the immediate cause of death is cardiac arrest and the underlying cause of death was the severe blunt traumatic injuries on the upper extremities, the antecedent cause of death was rhabdomyolysis and acute tubular necrosis of the kidney,” it added.
Rhabdomyolysis is a life-threatening condition due to direct or indirect muscle injury.
Acute tubular necrosis meanwhile means there was lack of oxygen and blood flow to the kidneys which damaged them.
Rejecting the enlarged heart argument of the accused, the court gave more weight to the testimony of the medico-legal officer who conducted the autopsy on Castillo and on the pathologist who examined his internal organs. Both concluded that “severe blunt traumatic physical injuries” were the cause of Castillo’s death.
Judge Magsipoc-Pagalilauan noted that even assuming Castillo died due to an enlarged heart, the 10 accused can still be held criminally liable for his death if they caused the cause of death or if the blow delievered by the accused is either the efficient cause of death or accelerated the death or is the proximate cause of the death.
“Even though a blow with the fist or a kick does not cause any external would (sic), it may easily produce inflammation of the spleen and peritonitis and cause of death, and even though victim may have been previously affected by some internal malady, yet if the blow with the fist or foot accelerated death, he who caused such acceleration is responsible for the death as the result of an injury willfully and unlawfully inflicted,” she concluded.
The judge also found witness Ventura to be “credible.”
“He was able to provide a detailed, direct and straightforward narration of the events that transpired during the hazing. Evidence do not show that Mark Anthony Ventura has improper motive to falsely testify against the accused, his ‘brods’ in the Aegis Juris Fraternity,” she said.
The inconsistencies, the judge noted, were minor and did not affect his credibility.
The 10 accused had also tried but failed to post bail.
With the denial of their demurrer, the accused are now expected to present their evidence to refute the allegations.
A frat member who brought Castillo to the hospital was convicted by a Manila court in June 2019 for obstruction of justice when he initially claimed he found Castillo’s body on the sidewalk.
John Paul Solano was sentenced to up to 4 years and 2 months in prison.
If found guilty, the fraternity boys could face up to 40 years in prison under Republic Act 8049 or the Anti-Hazing Act.