To a non-legal mind, the release from detention on Thursday of John Paul Solano, one of the main suspects in the hazing death of University of Santo Tomas law freshman Horacio “Atio” Castillo 3rd, came as a shock.
How could a principal suspect, already in police custody and who could provide vital information that could lead to the arrest of other suspects, be freed less than a week from detention?
The apprehension is understandable from the perspective that the alleged “master initiator” of Castillo in the Aegis Juris law school fraternity, Ralph Trangia, left the country for the United States via Taiwan just two days after the fatal hazing rites.
Given the resources and influence wielded by fraternity elders, all the hazing suspects pose a flight risk. In fact, 16 members of Aegis Juris had been placed on an immigration lookout order by the Justice department. It is only reasonable that all suspects, Solano included, are arrested and detained post-haste.
It appears, however, that the Manila Police District (MPD) had made an early blunder when it sought inquest proceedings on Solano.
An inquest is a summary proceeding, in which a prosecutor determines whether a suspect arrested without a warrant should remain in detention or be released.
In such cases, the suspect is often caught in the act or was being pursued by authorities immediately after the crime was committed, justifying a warrantless arrest.
This was not the case with Solano, the 27-year-old medical technologist who gave false testimony to the police on the circumstances surrounding Atio’s death and subsequent transport to the Chinese General Hospital in the morning of September 17.
Solano went into hiding then voluntarily surrendered to Sen. Panfilo Lacson on September 22, five days after the fatal hazing rites that claimed Castillo’s life.
The rules of criminal procedure were on Solano’s side. Instead of an inquest, the police should have filed criminal complaints before prosecutors and sought a preliminary investigation, the proper course of action.
Otherwise, the outcome could have been devastating to the case; an inquest, being a summary proceeding, would have deprived Solano of the chance to answer the charges against him, as well as detained him unlawfully. He could have walked away eventually because he was deprived of due process.
The Castillo case is a golden opportunity for the Philippine National Police to redeem itself from the public outrage over the recent killings of teenagers in the government’s war on drugs.
Shortcuts like the botched inquest of Solano are, therefore, unacceptable.
At any rate, the MPD can still make up for the blunder by assembling an airtight case against the fraternity members before public prosecutors on October 4 and 9.
Acting Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan has said Solano’s release did not mean he was free from the murder and anti-hazing complaints.
The three-man panel of prosecutors, led by Assistant State Prosecutor Susan Villanueva, must be sharp and wise in their preliminary investigation in determining probable cause for formal charges to be filed in court.
The bottom line for justice in this case is this: An innocent hazing victim has died, and the guilty parties must be punished.
Atio’s parents, Horacio Jr. and Carmina, must be assured that justice is attainable for their son’s brutal and senseless death.
The police cannot afford to make another misstep, considering they will be up against big and influential law firms and moneyed defendants.