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Effect of Death of the Private Complainant in a Criminal Case

Does the death of the offended party in a criminal case for libel or defamation extinguishes the criminal liability of the accused?

No. The causes for extinguishment of criminal liability are enumerated in Article 89 of the Revised Penal Code. The death of the offended party is not one of them. Neither is such an event listed among the grounds of a motion to quash a criminal complaint or information as provided in Section 2, Rule 117, of the Rules of Court. No Philippine decision was cited to support the view espoused by the defendant-appellee. It is not even likely that there will be such a jurisprudence, inasmuch as to so hold that the death of the offended party in a libel case will abate the criminal action against the offender would be contrary to the existing statutory dispositions, if not repugnant to the system of criminal procedure applied in this jurisdiction.

The reasons given by the trial judge in dismissing the information for libel on account of the death of the offended party are that the affront suffered by Senator Antonino was personal to him; that Senator Antonino was not able to testify before he died; and that a supposed majority of American jurisprudence supports the view that a case for slander or libel does not survive the death of either the wrongdoer or the person injured. (citing I Am. Jur., Sec. 122, p. 87.)

Elaborating on the grounds relied upon by the trial court, defendant-appellee argues in his brief that inasmuch as Senator Antonino died before he was able to testify, the defendant-appellee was denied the right to be confronted at the trial by, and to cross- examine the witnesses against him. (Sec. l(f), Rule 115, Rules of Court.) He further contends that the right of an offended party to file a complaint does not survive after his death and may not be exercised by his heirs or legal representatives. (citing Guevarra vs. del Rosario, 77 Phil. 615.)

We find the arguments adduced by both the court a quo and defendant-appellee to be devoid of merit. It is true that Senator Antonino who was the person supposedly libeled died during the pendency of the libel case filed against the defendant- appellee. This fact, however, does not mean that the death of the victim extinguished the criminal liability for the offense committed against him. If these were so, no one may be prosecuted for homicide or murder, or convicted of any crime wherein the offended party had died at any time before final judgment in the case had been rendered. It is a truism that a criminal offense is prosecuted not because of the injury or harm inflicted on the offended party, but because a crime is supposed to be an outrage to the sovereignty of the State. (City of Manila vs, Rizal, 27 Phil. 50.)

It is correct to state that, as a general rule, if the offended party shall die before he was able to file a complaint for the crime committed against him, his heirs or legal representatives do not have the right to file the complaint for the said crime, as was held in the cited case of Guevarra vs. del Rosario. However, the complaint in this case was not filed by the heirs or legal representatives of Senator Antonino. As stated earlier, it was Senator Antonino himself who filed the complaint and his death occurred after such filing. No rule or jurisprudence prescribes that the death of the offended party under such a circumstance would invalidate the complaint previously filed by the offended party himself.

The circumstance that the crime charged against defendant-appellee is libel does not create sufficient legal basis to recognize an exception from the general principles as to the effect of the death of the offended party on the criminal liability of the offender. No such exception is prescribed in the applicable provisions, nor justified by logic or reason. Even if Senator Antonino died before he filed the complaint in question, the criminal action is not abated, inasmuch as the libel charged in the information is not one which cannot be "brought except at the instance of and upon complaint filed by the offended party," there being no imputation of an offense which cannot be prosecuted de oficio. (Sec. 4, Rule 110, Rules of Court.)

We find no decisive significance in the circumstance that Senator Antonino died before he was able to testify. The right of confrontation and cross-examination as guaranteed by Sec. l(f), Rule 115, of the Rules of Court and Sec. 19, Article IV, of the Constitution, does not mean that the offended party should, testify in the case. Indeed, there is no requirement that the offended party in a criminal case must take the witness stand even if he were not dead. Clearly, neither may such obligation be imposed where the offended party is already dead. The right of confrontation and cross-examination is guaranteed to an accused with respect to any witness who may testify against him, but not in respect of those who are not made to testify. As regards the latter, no harm or prejudice is caused the accused against which he needed to be protected. (People vs. Bundalian, G.R. No. L-29985, October 23, 1982)

If the offended party dies before he is able to file a complaint, can his heirs file it on his behalf?

No, the right to file a criminal action is personal and abates upon the  death  of  the  offended  party.   It is not transmissible to his heirs. (Guevarra vs. del Rosario; People vs Bundalian) This pertains to private crimes, compared to public crimes.

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