A tweet from the Inquirer today brought to mind a documentary I watched close to two months ago. Entitled Give Up Tomorrow, the film centered on Paco Larrañaga, son of a landed Spanish father and Filipina mother, who was convicted of double murder charges along with seven others for the disappearance of Cebuano sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in 1997. Below is a review of the documentary as written for my J 103 (Interpretative Writing) class.
It has been a long-running joke that the Philippine justice system is best described in two words: just tiis (“push on” in Filipino). For all the description’s merits as an exercise in wordplay, it belies the disturbing reality of cases that await resolution for decades, if at all.
“Just tiis” also paints a picture of restless complainants twiddling their thumbs in trepidation, as time and resources (i.e. legal fees) needed to sustain the case runs out.
One would be remiss to assume, however, that only plaintiffs suffer the brunt of lapses and delays in judicial proceedings.
Accused parties, after all, are movants as well. What separates them from petitioners is the converse burden of proving innocence, by emphasizing the impossibility – logistical or otherwise – of their involvement in the crime.
What happens, however, when a person accused and subsequently convicted of a crime cries out foul and clamors for justice?
This is the central predicament presented in the 2011 documentary “Give Up Tomorrow”, helmed by Michael Collins and produced by Marty Syjuco. The film chronicles the case of Paco Larrañaga, son of a landed Spanish father and Filipina mother, who was convicted of double murder charges along with seven others for the disappearance of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in 1997.
The Chiong sisters were abducted from a commercial complex in Cebu on July 16, 1997. A corpse believed to be Marijoy’s was found in a ravine, showing conclusive evidence of rape prior to the murder.
At the time, Paco – the 19-year-old great-grandson of former president Sergio Osmeña – and his group of friends from similarly influential families were deemed the neighborhood bad boys of Cebu. He also had a juvenile criminal record due to a scuffle at his high school’s parking lot.
Thelma Chiong, mother to the murdered sisters, also proffered that Paco was Marijoy’s suitor. Ten months after, a Davidson Rusia confessed to being an accomplice to the crime, and pleaded for blanket immunity in exchange for becoming a state witness. Paco would firmly deny knowing either the Chiong sisters or Rusia.
As the trial of the “Chiong Seven” went underway, inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case began to surface. 35 witnesses testified that Paco was in Quezon City, Manila the night the Chiongs were abducted. This ran counter to Rusia’s claim that he accompanied Paco and his group as they raped and murdered the two girls.
Rusia’s credibility as state witness was questioned not only because of inconsistencies in his sworn statements, but also due to reports by his fellow inmates insinuating that he was tortured as the trial wore on.
Then president Joseph Estrada called to expedite the case. The film credits this political maneuver to the Chiongs’ connections in Malacañang – Thelma Chiong’s sister Cheryl Jimenea was at that time Estrada’s personal secretary.
Judge Martin Ocampo of the Cebu Regional Trial Court meted reclusion perpetua on the Chiong Seven. Lawyers for the prosecution were promoted to regional and national government posts. Members of the police force who were involved in the investigation likewise rose in rank.
The Larrañagas filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, citing violations to Paco’s human rights and his being subject to an unfair trial. The Supreme Court responded by elevating the sentence from life imprisonment to death.
The highest court of the land adjudicates based on the merit of cases presented and not on the conduct of courtroom trials as a lower court would. Thus, the resolution to aggravate the penalty was passed even as no new evidence was presented before the Supreme Court en banc.
Local media did not fall short of passing its own judgment on Paco and his fellow accused. Men and women of the press were all too pre-occupied with sustaining a stereotype of Paco and his friends: rich kids gone wild, now left with no choice but to swallow the bitter pill of the penal system.
The media harped on the prominence angle, always emphasizing how the accused were “delinquent” scions of historically and economically powerful clans.
Journalist Teddy Boy Locsin produced a news segment with a voice-over emphasizing how drug use altered the state of minds of Paco and his friends. This, despite reports that all the accused tested negative for drugs at the time of their arrest.
In a similar segment, Locsin would deliver a stand-upper explaining the crime scene. He cupped his hands together and says to the camera: “Ganito karaming semen ang natagpuan sa bangkay ni Marijoy Chiong (“This much semen was found in the corpse of Marijoy Chiong”).”
It would later be known that only a single sperm cell was found in the corpse’s undergarment and admitted as evidence, a grossly far cry from the cupful Locsin reported.
Justice delayed is justice denied. But denying an accused person’s right to a fair trial – both in court and in the public’s eye – makes a farce out of democracy.
Injustice is never doled in isolation. Injustice is societal in that if something of this magnitude happened to Paco, it can happen to any of us. The documentary serves to reinforce that the Larrañaga’s nightmare is our society’s reality.
To have the courts and the media remain unreceptive to criticism on their handling of Paco’s case would be the last nail in the coffin of justice. The long-running joke will no longer be “just tiis”, but the integrity of the Philippine justice system.