“Why do you think,” my criminal procedure professor once asked our class, “that even Mayor Sanchez must be afforded his day before the court?”

My professor was referring to Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez, the convicted mastermind in the brutal killings of two UPLB students in 1993. The crime was so gruesome, the judge who ruled on the case described it as “a plot seemingly hatched in hell.”

Sanchez was supposed to benefit from the good conduct time allowance law middle last year, until his early release was scrapped due to public criticism.

“Where can anyone find the guts to defend such a monstrous act?” I remember asking myself as I listened to her repeat her question.

“Why should we defend the likes of Mayor Sanchez?” she asked the class.

It has been a question I have long wanted to answer. The question is so profound I am often lost for words whenever I am asked about it. I tried salvaging myself by throwing legal concepts around, such as the presumption of innocence and the rights of the accused under the Constitution. But who am I fooling? Even those concepts are too profound for a lay person to fathom.

I recall our parish priest, upon learning that I was pursuing law school, asking me, “Why are lawyers defending murderers?” I simply looked at him, at a loss for words. I used to justify my inability to answer by saying I was only in my first year then. But, in time, such a lame excuse can no longer save me.

Lawyers are not defending the criminal per se. Every time they appear before the court, the goal is to ensure that the sacred letters of the Constitution are being upheld every time.

I looked again at my professor, an experienced prosecutor, waiting for her to share her insight. Finally, she gave her answer.

“It is because to do otherwise is to set a bad precedent,” she said.

The doctrine of judicial precedent means that courts are bound to apply the legal principles already settled by the Supreme Court in earlier cases. These principles are usually in the form of how legal provisions are interpreted as applied to specific cases. Constitutional provisions often come in grand statements, and to make them applicable to real-life situations, court intervention is needed.

Unfortunately, it is often the likes of Sanchez that have the capacity to appeal their cases up to the Supreme Court. Should the Court decide to deprive them of their constitutional rights, this would mean stripping the poor of their rights as well. In our system of judiciary, only the High Court gets to set the precedent, to be followed by the lower courts.

The High Court does not do the interpretation alone. Lawyers must also be creative in crafting arguments in hopes of swaying the Court in favor of the rights of their accused client. An application of the constitutional provision to a specific case means an expansion of its interpretation. Such expanded interpretations of legal provisions can be cited in defending the rights of other accused as well.

True enough, lawyers are not defending the criminal per se. Every time they appear before the court, the goal is to ensure that the sacred letters of the Constitution are being upheld every time. It is to eradicate every attempt by the State to erode our cherished constitutional rights. A man murdering two students is one thing. The state utilizing its entire machinery to violate his rights is another. The Bill of Rights under the Constitution is for the latter. The defense of the criminal is merely an incident of that goal.

In a time when alleged criminals are summarily killed by vigilantes and critics shamed and red-tagged in the courts of public opinion, lawyers and law students alike must hold the line to protect the rule of law and justice.

The Duterte administration has damaged many of the ideals I have thus learned from law school. What I once believed to be basic concepts of due process and right to life are being put to the test. It seems that not everyone is entitled to live, if the Duterte law is to be followed.

But it is not too late. We just have to realize that the true power lies in our hands. We can decide the future of our nation. The test is the 2022 elections.

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