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Such a long wait for justice

Chit's death came in a split second, but the resolution of her case took almost 13 years, which is way too long.

May 20, 2024

Tita C. Valderama

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5-minute read

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After 13 frustrating years since Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan was killed in a road crash, a Quezon City court has finally found two bus drivers guilty of reckless imprudence resulting in damage to property with homicide.

Judge Ralph Lee of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 83 sentenced Daniel Espinosa and Victor Ancheta to a prison term of two years, four months and one day. In a nine-page resolution dated April 22, the registered owners of Universal Guiding Star Bus Line Corp. and Nova Auto Transport Bus Corp. were ordered to pay over P7.46 million in moral and exemplary damages to the family of Estella-Simbulan in case of the drivers’ incapacity to pay.

Has justice been served? Not yet. Espinosa and Ancheta have yet to serve the sentence. They were on a P30,000 bail each while the case was on trial. Chit’s family has yet to receive word from the bus operators.

If it’s any consolation, the verdict is already out. But how much longer will it take before the court decision is fully enforced?

Chit was on her way to a reunion with her high school classmates at the UP Ayala Techno-Hub when the Nova bus driven by Ancheta first hit the taxi she was riding on the right side. This caused the taxi to swerve in the path of the Universal Guiding Star bus manned by Espinosa, then rammed the taxi’s rear end, causing Chit’s demise.

Chit, a good friend and media colleague, was a journalism professor at the UP College of Mass Communication at the time of her tragic death. She began her journalism career as a campus writer for the UP Collegian, then she wrote articles for anti-dictatorship publications under the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

Then, she covered the political beats for Ang Pahayagang Malaya. She also wrote for other critical publications, such as the Mr and Ms and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She had a short editing stint at the Philippine Daily Inquirer before she joined the then-Gokongwei-owned Manila Times as managing editor. She later served as editor-in-chief of Pinoy Times, a tabloid that extensively covered the excesses of former president Joseph Estrada.

She was one of six veteran women journalists who founded VERA Files in 2008. Marking Chit’s 64th birthday on Aug. 19, 2021, and the 10th year of her passing, VERA Files published a book, entitled Tatlong Kuwento Para sa Batang Pilipino, a collection of short stories she had written as a Christmas gift to her niece and nephews, hard copies of which were found in a baul (wooden chest) among her papers at home during the pandemic lockdown.

The court decision recognized Chit’s “immense contributions… as one of the country’s premier academicians and journalists.”

At least this year, the stories about the May 13, 2011 road crash are no longer about the excruciating waiting time for the verdict. Chit’s death came in a split second, but the resolution of her case took almost 13 years, which is way too long. It shows how the wheels of justice in the country grind too slowly.

Is it worth the wait? Chit’s husband, retired UP professor Roland Simbulan, says he thinks there will be justice eventually, no matter how slow it is. “The trial really tested my patience. Buti na lang masipag at matiyaga ang aming lawyer, si Atty. Arno Sanidad,” he said.

Roland said he had lost count of the number of court hearings the case had. At one point, he had lost hope it would ever be decided.

I expected that the bus drivers would get the maximum prison term of six years, given that they fled after the crash and did not report the accident to the police for investigation. Espinosa went into hiding and surrendered days later to then-Davao City vice mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who, in turn, asked Salvador Panelo to represent the bus driver in court.

Panelo’s annoying presence at the wake for Chit at Arlington Memorial Chapels on Araneta Avenue is not easy to forget. He was there every single night until her cremation, apparently showing interest in the much-publicized accident. More than a week later, he was defending one of the bus drivers whose recklessness caused Chit’s death.

The case trial dragged on for several reasons. Initially, the delays were due to a conflict in the schedules of the judge and the lawyers. The defense changed counsel twice after Panelo withdrew following his appointment as Duterte’s chief legal counsel in June 2016. Another cause of delay was a case between a prosecutor and one of the defense lawyers suing each other, as well as the judge who was investigated by the Supreme Court. And then the COVID-19 pandemic.

For now, Roland hopes that bus operators will “change their policy and system for drivers, which encourages recklessness for the sake of profits.”

“We hope that road users rules will be effectively enforced by the authorities and that good governance will keep reckless drivers off our roads to prevent them from victimizing the public.”

Strict enforcement of the road safety laws that were enacted after Chit’s death, such as the 60-kilometer per hour speed limit on Commonwealth Avenue — tagged as a “killer highway” due to the high number of fatal road crashes there — will somehow make Chit’s death meaningful.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.

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