A film about flaws

published Aug 25, 2012, MST page A5

The documentary Give Up Tomorrow, produced by Marty Syjuco and directed by Michael Collins, has made the rounds of various film festivals around the world. It premiered at the Tribeca Film festival in New York City in April 2011 and from there was shown in Canada, the United Kingdom, Kosovo, Latvia, Switzerland and Brazil. Last month it premiered in the Philippines during the Cinemalaya Film Festival.

But it was perhaps at Malcolm Hall at the University of the Philippines College of Law, where it was screened earlier this month before an audience of law students, where the film made an especially profound impact.

The film chronicles the arrest, trial, and conviction of Francisco Juan “Paco” Larrañaga, son of a Filipino mother and a Spanish father, who was found guilty of the kidnapping, rape and murder of Marijoy and Jackie Chiong of Cebu City. The sisters went missing in July 1997; one body, presumed to be Marijoy’s, was found in a ravine afterwards. The girl was also gang-raped.

Larranaga, then 19, was arrested weeks later in Quezon City. Six others in Cebu were arrested as well. Until today, Larrañaga insists that he was in Manila attending classes at the Center for Culinary Arts when the crime supposedly happened. That evening, he was with his classmates for a “gimmick” that lasted until the wee hours of the following morning. Later that day, he was again in school to take a test. His classmates and teachers all backed his story.

One Davidson Rusia however emerged and claimed he was part of the group that perpetrated the crime. He said Larrañaga was their leader. A bizarre investigation and trial concluded in a conviction where Larrañaga and company were given life sentences.

The judge—who gave much credence to Rusia’s testimony—killed himself a few months later.

Larrañaga and the others appealed to the Supreme Court, hoping it was a better, fairer venue. But the high court affirmed the guilty verdict and modified the sentence from life to the death penalty. Eventually the death sentence in the Philippines was suspended and Larrañaga was sent to Spain under a prison transfer treaty.

The filmmakers disclosed that they are related to Larranaga. It was clear however that more than helping a kin, the filmmakers wanted to expose the rotten system of justice here. Indeed, according to lawyer Sandra Marie Coronel, who represented Larrañaga during his appeal, “everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong.”

Coronel, together with lawyers Mike Armovit and Jose Jose, Assistant Solicitor General Karl Miranda, DNA expert Corazon de Ungria, forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun and director Maryo delos Reyes all offered their views in a forum that followed the film showing. The following issues were raised:

Media’s role in shaping public opinion. It is true that media have to tell stories in an interesting way to gain advantage over their competitors. In this case, it was easy to use stereoptypes in guessing who the bad guys were. Larrañaga was shown as a typical rich kid. His big frame, his mestizo looks, his English-speaking ability and his mother’s connection to the influential Osmeña clan of Cebu conspired to show him as a brat who had to get whatever he wanted. But is it acceptable to make suggestions, insinuations with regard to a case without ever really knowing all the facts?

Closure at any cost. How is justice obtained? Does closure come with the knowledge that somebody is in jail for the death of your child? Everybody can relate to the grief of parents who lost their children to voiolent crimes. But is it enough that somebody—anybody —is in jail, even if it is the wrong person? Will closure come then?

Witnesses’ weakness. The documentary also exposes the weakness of a system that relies heavily on testimonial evidence and the fallibility and subjectivity of human behavior. People can be driven by their own agenda. But there was a body, and it could have been processed. Physical evidence could have settled, once and for all, who the murderers were. But no such thing was done.

Living within a flawed system. The justice system in the Philippines is generally flawed. We have heard many horror stories in its various stages—prosecution, trial and correction. Police work may either be sloppy or complicit with the criminals’ agenda. Judges and justices may not conduct themselves honorably while in court. They may be pressured or motivated to decide on a case in a particular way. Prison authorities may show leniency to some who can afford to pay for it.

One enters law school with the objective of being an instrument of change. Confronted with these ugly and disheartening realities, however, how does an aspiring lawyer keep the idealism alive?

Ultimately, the documentary is not, per se, about Larrañaga, who happened to have relatives with the skills, the resources and the network to tell his story to a global audience. Give Up Tomorrow makes us think about all the innocent people paying for a crime they did not commit, wondering whether they would ever see the day that truth prevails, or whether they would die waiting for something that would never come.