By Jun Bautista
The National Press Club (NPC) has decried lawyer Sigfried Fortun's decision to defend Datu Unsay Mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., suspect on the Maguindanao massacre that claimed the lives of 57 people, including 30 journalists. It is even reportedly contemplating on declaring Fortun as a persona non grata and banning him from attending all media events.
While the Maguindanao massacre should be condemned in the strongest possible terms, we must not let our emotions get the better part of us. However strong the evidence may be against Ampatuan, Jr., no less than our Constitution presumes his innocence until evidence to the contrary is proven. Due process requires that he be given his day in court, accorded a fair trial and only after evidence for or against his innocence is presented that he may validly be judged either innocent or guilty.
In the midst of all these substantive and procedural safeguards, Ampatuan, Jr. is entitled to competent legal representation. Fortun is merely performing his legal duty as an officer of the court whose oath requires him to defend any person accused of a crime. Instead of being condemned, Fortun should even be lauded for helping make the judicial system work and go about its business of dispensing justice. Imagine if no one would represent Ampatuan, Jr. Given the seriousness of the charges against him, it is highly unlikely that the court will proceed without him being represented by a lawyer, especially so that he has preferred to be represented by one. This will definitely not be good as trial will be postponed indefintely and consequently delay the victims' relatives' - including the NPC's - plea for justice.
What alternatives do the NPC and those people who condemn Fortun for defending Ampatuan, Jr. have? If Fortun is taken out of the picture, most assuredly someone will take his position if the trial against Ampatuan, Jr. were to proceed. If no one will voluntarily represent Ampatuan, Jr., the court trying the case will be forced to appoint someone. Now, will the NPC also decry and declare as persona non grata the person who will be appointed as new defense counsel? How about the judge who will appoint the lawyer, will she also be condemned considering that she will be instrumental in giving Ampatuan, Jr. someone who will defend him?
Perhaps we should just lynch Ampatuan, Jr. and strike-off from our Constitution and statutes book due process protections and abolish our courts altogether. I am not saying this is what the NPC wants as well as those oppose to Fortun and lawyers defending undesirable people, but come to think of it this is precisely the implication of not wanting accused people to be given their day in court and accorded competent legal representation.
Were the court to deny Ampatuan, Jr. his right to legal representation and force him to defend himself, aside from violating his constitutional right to have a counsel of his own choice, the court would be prejudging his guilt already, for why would the court refuse to deny such representation if not dictated by the conviction that he is guilty of the crimes charged against him? This is not the kind of court we would like to dispense justice for us.
To be sure, there is someone out there crying how could Fortun, or any lawyer for that matter, defend a monster like Ampatuan, Jr? Some people may not buy it, but it is not for the lawyer to judge his or her client; that is a matter for the court to decide. Unless we want to go back to the age of trial by ordeal - where a person's guilt or innocence is decided in strange ways, such as being pronounced innocent if a person submerged in water does not drown or guilty if he does, or innocent if the accused's hands heal within certain days after suffering injuries from being dipped in boiling water or being pronounced guilty if the accused loses in a duel - we have to settle to the fact that we now have a judicial system that allocates responsibilities to different participants for the purpose of painstakingly ascertaining the facts and circumstances of a case to determine who is innocent or guilty.
A criminal defense lawyer, like Fortun, performs the essential function of ensuring that a person is not unjustly accused and that only after proof beyond reasonable doubt is established may an accused person be adjudged guilty and penalized. In essence he represents the criminal justice system, as much as the public prosecutor does.
If justice were to be dispensed, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. - like any other suspect and without regard to his guilt or innocence - deserves to be represented by a competent counsel of his own choice. To borrow the words of US President Obama, there is no incompatibility between our safety and ideals. We must not throw away the legal protections provided by the Constitution in our quest for justice, however reprehensible the charges against an accused person are.
Having said the foregoing, it is hoped that Atty. Fortun will stand only by what is just, ethical and proper in proceeding with the defense of his client. While he is expected to exercise utmost zeal and dedication in the defense of his client, his oath also dictates that he should not delay the cause of justice and defend his client using only fair, honest and legally permissible means.