ArchivesJanuary 2011Webb Opinion: Most unfortunate for Phil. jurisprudence

Webb Opinion: Most unfortunate for Phil. jurisprudence

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As an appellate court opinion, the Webb opinion disserved jurisprudence.

In reversing the judgment of conviction of the trial court and the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court, the Supreme Court did what appellate courts are not supposed to do: it reweighed the evidence on a factual issue.

In so doing, the Supreme Court usurped the function of the trier of fact, determining, but without the benefit of face-to-face observation, who was the credible witness and who was not.

Appeals involve either questions of law or questions of fact. The standard of review for questions of law is different from that for questions of fact.

Where the question is one of law, appellate courts perform an independent review because they are as qualified, indeed more so, to review the law as the trial courts.

Accordingly, the standard of review for questions of law is review de novo. But for questions of fact, the appellate court is not as well equipped as the trier of fact.

The appellate court does not have the opportunity to observe the demeanor of witnesses as they testify. The appellate justice is not there to see a witness fidget his fingers, or bow his head, or roll his eyes, or nervously sit on his chair, as he testifies. He is not there to hear the witness’s tone of voice. He is not there, in other words, to observe witness behavior that may reveal truth from lies.

For this reason, appellate courts always view the findings of fact of the trial court with deference. The standard of review that expresses this deference is the substantial evidence standard of review. What does this mean?

This means that because on appeal, they are confronted with a paper record that is cold and expressionless, appellate courts do not reweigh the evidence. They accept as true the findings of fact of the trial court, and disregard contradicting evidence that the trier of fact had rejected as unworthy of belief.

Indeed, if appellate courts can reweigh the evidence, what is the need for trial courts?

In Webb, what standard of review did the Supreme Court use? None really. In reweighing the evidence, the Supreme Court made repeated references to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not a standard of review. It is a burden of persuasion that the prosecution must meet at the trial level.

By convicting Webb, et al, the trial court determined that the prosecution had overcome this burden. That determination cannot be disturbed on appeal, if supported by substantial evidence.

The task of the appellate court, therefore, is not to determine whether the guilt of the accused has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether there is in the record substantial evidence to support the finding of the trier of fact that the guilt of the accused had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

If there is in the record substantial evidence to support the finding of the trier of fact, the appellate court must affirm that finding even if it might have found to the contrary had it been the trier of fact.

How does the appellate court determine the presence of substantial evidence? In Jackson v. Virginia (1979), 443 U.S. 307, 318-319, the United States Supreme Court stated that “the critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction must be . . . to determine whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But this inquiry does not require a court to ‘ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’ [Citation]. Instead, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. [Citation.] This familiar standard gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts. Once a defendant has been found guilty of the crime charged, the factfinder’s role as weigher of the evidence is preserved through a legal conclusion that, upon judicial review, all of the evidence is to be considered in the light most favorable to the prosecution.”

The key here is reviewing the evidence “in the light most favorable to the prosecution.” The “light most favorable to the prosecution” in the Webb case is to find the testimony of witness Alfaro credible and the alibi of Webb incredible, as the trier of fact so found.

California courts express the substantial evidence standard in even terser language: “The rule is established that when a finding of fact is attacked on the ground that there is not any substantial evidence to sustain it, the power of an appellate court begins and ends with a determination as to whether there is any substantial evidence, contradicted or uncontradicted, which will support the finding of fact.” (Key v. McCabe, 54 Cal.2d 736.)

Under the California standard, the fact that Alfaro’s testimony was contradicted by Webb’s alibi is immaterial, because all it means is that the trial court believed Alfaro’s testimony and disbelieved Webb’s alibi, and the appellate court is powerless to disturb that factual determination.

Had the Supreme Court applied the deferential substantial evidence standard of review in Webb, as it should have done, it would have had no choice but to affirm the conviction.

But no standard of review was applied. And that is most unfortunate for Philippine jurisprudence.

Atty. Marcelino C. Maxino
Retired Lead Lawyer, California Court of Appeal, 6th Appellate District (San Jose)
Bar examiner, State Bar of California

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