Sunday, February 28, 2021

Adios, Maria Clara

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Either Associate Justice Samuel R. Martires, who wrote People v. Amarela, is a Miss Universe junkie or Pia Wurtzbach herself had acted as amicus curiae—a friend of the Court—because a portion of that Supreme Court decision sounded suspiciously familiar.  Amarela is a rape case, specifically an acquittal of two men on the ground of reasonable doubt.  They had been convicted by the trial court, whose judgment would later on be affirmed by the Court of Appeals, solely on the testimony of the complainant who claimed that she had been raped by the first accused, then raped by the second accused within hours of each other.  The Supreme Court, however, reversed the conviction on the ground that the testimony of the complainant, whose identity would be concealed, as required by law, behind the initials “AAA,” lacked credibility and consistency.

Charges of rape by the very nature of the crime, are notoriously difficult to prove because, in most cases, it happens in private and involves only two parties, the victim and the accused.  All things being equal, judges usually are more inclined to believe the victims provided their testimonies are clear, credible and consistent, particularly so when the accused relies on defenses of denial or alibi, which are considered intrinsically weak compared to the clear and categorical statements of the victim.  Over decades, courts have been aided by a principle first laid down in 1960, in the case of People v. Taño, wherein the “woman’s honor” doctrine was first enunciated.  It goes like this:

It is a well-known fact that women, especially Filipinos, would not admit that they have been abused unless that abuse had actually happened.  This is due to their natural instinct to protect their honor.  We cannot believe that the offended party would have positively stated that intercourse took place unless it did actually take place.

I read this case, cited in Amarela, and decided that it is something that, in law, is considered obiter dictum.  An obiter is a mere statement, made in passing by a court, to support a point; it does not carry weight and does not set precedent when compared to ratio decidendi, which is the principal reasoning behind a judge’s decision. Yet somehow, that obiter entrenched itself in Philippine rape jurisprudence, cited time and time again to convict many an alleged rapist when the only evidence on hand was the testimony of the supposed victim.

The premise of the obiter, of course, a woman will never lie about having been sexually assaulted.  That simply isn’t true.  Speaking as a lawyer, I have always found it problematic but never paid it any mind because, as a woman, I know how nearly impossible it is to substantiate an accusation of rape.  The majority of cases boils down to a “he said, she said” situation, which places judges in an untenable situation, but thanks to the obiter, the balance tilts in favor of the woman.

The “women’s honor” dictum is legally problematic because it arrays itself against the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence of all accused.  In order to overcome that presumption, the accused’s guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.  The job of proving an accused’s guilt belongs to the prosecution who must then present clear and convincing evidence before the court.  But rape cases are not like other criminal cases—they are harder to prove.  The dictum makes it easier for the prosecution, especially when the evidentiary scales are even.  It may be fair to the victim, but is it fair to the accused?

It is not because the “women’s honor” dictum is a mere evidentiary presumption, a presumption that women will never lie about being raped, and an evidentiary presumption can never override a constitutional presumption.

Amarela called it for what it is, and this is where Miss Universe and Pia Wurtzbach come in.  Identifying the dictum as a “non sequitur,” when actually it is another fallacy called over-generalization, the Third Division reasoned: today, we simply cannot be stuck to the Maria Clara stereotype of a demure and reserved Filipino woman. We should stay away from such mindset and accept the realities of a woman’s dynamic role in society today; she who has over the years transformed into a strong and confidently intelligent and beautiful person, willing to fight for her rights.

Anything about it sound familiar?  In any case, what the Third Division did was not so much as to place spikes in the way of the #MeToo movement as to restore a rightful hierarchy:  the Bill of Rights should always prevail over presumptions of evidence.  The prosecution, more so in rape cases, has a duty to do its job of proving a person’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  Anything less would be a miscarriage of justice.

Amarela says something, too, which I think is perfectly on point.  It argues that the stereotype of the Filipina as a Maria Clara has no place in the 21st century.  What?  Filipinas are supposed to be demure and reserved?  Oh please.  Are we supposed to be virgins until we’re married?  Are we supposed to hide our faces behind fans and wear long, sweeping skirts and attend Mass every morning wearing veils and a rosary?  Sorry, boys, and sorry, too, to the girls with that mind-set still out there, womanhood has evolved beyond anything conservatives
can ever imagine. G

 

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