Wednesday, November 24, 2004 

convict innocent?

By Roy Pelovello

     International organizations are supporting calls for a fair trial and due process of law  for Francisco Juan "Paco" Larraņaga, one of six young men convicted of rapping and killing the Chiong sisters in Cebu in 1997.

     Fair Trials Abroad Trust, a European Union nongoverment organization, and the Madrid and Basque Bar Associations have joined relatives of Larraņaga, a Spanish-Filipino citizen, in calling for a retrial of the case.

     According to the groups, more than 35 witnesses, made up of Larraņaga's teachers and classmates at the Center for Culinary Arts, declared under perjury that the convict was in Metro Manila taking examinations when the crime took on July 16, 1997.

     But the courts, including the Supreme Court, have refused to hear the testimonies.

     The groups have each submitted a brief to the Supreme Court highlighting how Larraņaga was denied his basic rights as an accused by international standards.

     But the High Court has yet to receive the briefs, sent via diplomatic channels through the Spanish Consulate in May and in July.

     On February 3, the Supreme Court modified to death the reclusion perpetua or 40 years imprisonment the Cebu City Regional Trial Court imposed on Francisco Juan "Paco" Larraņaga and five others for the kidnapping rape and killing of sisters Jacqueline and Marijoy Chiong. 

     "We are now on the last leg of our quest for justice for both my son, mow 27, who has been wrongfully placed on death row, and for the Chiong family, who will never find peace by the death of an innocent," Larraņaga's mother Margarita Gonzales said at a press conference yesterday.

     "We call on you to assist us in sorting through the ruble of emotions and passions, in order that the evidence may be properly seen, weighed and evaluated.

     "I ask you to help me get justice for my son. Don't let them murder Paco. He is innocent," she added.

     Also convicted were Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, Alberto Caņo, Ariel Balansag and James Andrew Uy.

     Another accused, James Anthony Uy, who was 16 years old or a minor at the time the crimes were committed, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the special complex crime of kidnapping and serious illegal detention with homicide and rape.

     Uy was given a separate sentence consisting of imprisonment from 12 years as minimum to 17 years as maximum, for the crime of simple kidnapping and serious illegal detention.

     On May 5, 1999, the Cebu City Regional Trial Court convicted the six of kidnapping and serious illegal detention with homicide and rape and slapped two reclusion perpetua or 40-year jail terms on each.

     The press conference was held on the same day Paco was moved to Death Row at New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinglupa City.

      "Sadly, instead of correcting the grave injustice  MMM

committed by the RTC, the High Tribunal affirmed the trial court's decision and even increased the penalty to death by excusing the otherwise grave constitutional infractions committed by the police, the prosecution and the trial court and affirming the insufferable standard of 'physical impossibility' in an alibi," Margarita noted.

     Margarita and Miguel Juan del Gallego, a prominent businessman heading a crusade for freedom of Larraņaga, lamented that the high court denied their motions to have the body of Marijoy Chiong exhumed and subjected to DNA tests, for their lawyers to be heard in an oral argument, and for the case to be referred to the Court of Appeals for review.

     The mother said his son and their witnesses were not given the chance to be heard in court.

     "To make matters worse, my son's consistent offering to testify in his own defense was rejected," Margarita said.

     She said the late Judge Martin Ocampo of the Cebu RTC, who rendered the guilty verdict, never gave the defense enough time to present evidence and instead succumbed to public pressure and the "cry for blood".

     In its ruling, the high court said: "At times, the high court may show compassion and mercy but not at the expense of the broader interest of fair play and justice.

     "While we also find it difficult to mete out the penalty of death especially on young men who could have led productive and promising lives if only they were given enough guidance, however, we can never go against what is laid down in our statute books and established jurisprudence."

     In the companion criminal case, the High Court also found the accused guilty of the simple kidnapping and serious illegal detention of Marijoy's sister Jacqueline and were sentenced to reclusion perpetua.

     The appellants were also ordered to pay the heirs of each victim P100,00 in civil indemnity; P25,000 in temperate damages; P150,000 in moral damages; and P100,000 in exemplary damages.

     The prosecution's evidence centered on the testimony of state witness Davidson Valiente Rusia. His testimony, which 21 other witnesses backed, narrated the kidnapping and gang-rape of Marijoy and Jacqueline on July 16, 1997.

     On May 8, 1998, or 10 months later, Rusia admitted to policemen his participation in the abduction.

      He testified before the court on how the crimes were committed and identified all the appellants as perpetuators.

     He testified that after their abduction, the Chiong sisters were brought to the safehouse of the "Josman Aznar Group" in Guadalupe, Cebu City. They were later brought to Tan-awan, where the abductors drank and had a pot session.

     Rusia said the accused took their turns raping the victims, after which Marijoy was mercilessly pushed into a 150-meter ravine.

     The court found unreliable the appellants' defense of Alibi calling it "that much-abused sanctuary of felons."

     It observed that "appellants attempted to established their defense through the testimonies of relatives and friends who obviously wanted them exculpated of the crimes charged."

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