Family’s shock as court bins murder charge against ex-Palawan Governor

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Joel Reyes in his police mugshot. File photo from PNP Public Information Office

The former Governor of Palawan charged with the murder of a journalist has been freed after a court threw out the case against him.

Joel Reyes was arrested in 2015 for the killing of Dr Gerry Ortega, a prominent environmental campaigner and radio host who had often accused Reyes of corruption.

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The ex-official’s lawyer Demetrio Custodio said his client was released late yesterday (Friday, December 5) after a decision by the Court of Appeals (CA).

Dr Ortega was shot dead by a hired gunman while shopping in Puerto Princesa in 2011. It was a crime that shocked a nation well-used to such killings.

Reyes and his brother Mario, the Mayor of Coron, who was also implicated, went on the run 2012 after an arrest warrant was issued for them.

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They were eventually caught in Thailand in 2015 and returned to the Philippines.

Mr Custodio said today that the CA upheld a petition to void the arrest warrant against Reyes, challenging the testimony of a key witness in the case.

The court ruled that the testimony linking Reyes to the killing was “riddled with inconsistencies”.

“On that basis, the finding of probable cause and the issuance of a warrant of arrest was wrong,” the lawyer said.

Reyes had also argued that the dismissal of the charges against him by the first panel of investigations created by the Department of Justice in 2012 should prevail, even though a second panel, formed by then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, had reversed the department’s earlier findings, leading to his indictment.

Mario Reyes was freed on bail in 2016. Mr Custodio said yesterday’s ruling would also apply to him.

Family reacts to murder ruling

The family of Dr Ortega has reacted with horror at the decision.

Writing on Facebook, his brother Rafael said: “I’m not in any way pre-judging JTR [Joel T Reyes] that he is guilty. It is for the court to judge. But for the CA to decide and overrule the Regional Trial Court proceedings is a bleak day for our justice system.”

His daughter also expressed her shock. In a text message to reporters today, Mika Ortega said: “Our family is still recovering from the shock of yesterday’s CA decision ordering the release of former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, the mastermind for the murder of radio broadcaster, environmentalist, and anti-corruption advocate Dr Gerry Ortega.

“We have not received the copy of the decision yet. We will need time with our lawyers to study it and plan our next move. Until then, we ask everyone to remain vigilant.”

In its 24-page decision, the CA wrote: “Our hands are tied by our bounded duty to administer justice and abide by the law. No evidence, no conviction. So be it.

“Call it a second chance afforded him by God, or a lucky three-point play for him to use a common street lingo or a miracle in his favour, the petitioner must by all means be exonerated from the charge.

“This Court could only hope that he would take advantage and give full-faith and meaning to this second lease on life given him. He is definitely saved from the 20 year or so imprisonment metable to the offence charged.”

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