Monday, December 6, 2004

Convict in Chiong case. cries for justice
By Jonathan M. Hicap

     Seven years after he was arrested and subsequently convicted by a court in Cebu for the kidnapping of sisters Jacqueline and Marijoy Chiong, 27-year-old Francisco Juan “Paco” Larrañaga still maintains his innocence.

     Claiming he was denied a chance by Judge Martin Ocampo of Cebu to clear himself, Larrañaga is asking the Supreme Court to reopen the case.

     He said he was prevented from testifying to prove, among others, that he was not in Cebu on the day the Chiong sisters were last seen alive.

     He and six other youths—Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, Alberto Cano, Ariel Balansag, James Andrew Uy and James Anthony Uy—were sentenced to double-life terms by Ocampo on May 5, 1999, for kidnapping and serious illegal detention.

     “This is a great injustice because my son is innocent,” Margarita Gonzalez Larrañaga, Paco’s mother, said in a statement issued on November 23, the day his son was transferred from the maximum security compound of the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinglupa City to death row.

     The case of the Chiong sisters became one of the most sensational crimes in Cebu not only because of its gruesomeness, but because prominent families were involved.

     Mrs. Larrañaga is the granddaughter of the late President Sergio Osmeña and a cousin of Sen. Sergio Osmeña 3rd. The Osmeña have long been a politically powerful clan in Cebu.

     Before the events that changed his life, Paco was a student at the Center for Culinary Arts in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. The youngest of three children, he had dreamed of having his own restaurant.

     On July 18, a handcuffed and decomposing body was found in a ravine in Sitio Tan-awan, Guadalupe, Carcar in Cebu. It was believed to be the remains of 21-year-old Marijoy Chiong, who was last seen two days earlier with her sister, Jacqueline, 23, at the Ayala Center in Cebu.

     Jacqueline remains missing up to this time.

     Days later, police arrested Aznar, Adlawan, Cano, Balansag and the Uy brothers. Paco himself was picked up by police at the Center for Culinary Arts in Quezon City on September 16, 1997, and was taken to Camp Crame for questioning.

     Paco was transferred to the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center jail in Cebu. The media feasted on the story: A young man from a rich family accused of committing a ghastly crime.

     Paco’s lawyers insisted he was in Manila on July 16, taking his mid-term exam at the CCA from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

     More than 35 witnesses, comprising Paco’s classmates and teachers, submitted affidavits supporting Paco’s alibi.

     Rowena Bautista, an instructor at the culinary center, said Paco was in school from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and saw him again at about 6:30 p.m. The school’s registrar, Caroline Calleja, said she proctored a two-hour exam where Paco was present from 1:30 p.m.

     Richard Anthony Antonio, a classmate of Paco, said he was with Paco at the Tia Maria bar and restaurant in Quezon City until about 6:30 p.m.

     Former Ateneo student Lourdes Montalvan later testified in court she went to Paco’s condominium unit at about 7 p.m. and found Paco, Richard Anthony and Charmaine Flores there. Montalvan said she stayed at the condominium until 9:30 p.m.

     Flores, who corroborated Montalvan’s testimony, said that at about 10 p.m., Jheanessa Ann Fonacier fetched her and Paco at the condominium. After picking up another friend, Maharlika Schulze, they drove to the R&R Restaurant also on Katipunan for Paco’s despedida.

     There they met a group of Cebuanos, among them the del Gallego sisters—Marianne, Mona Lisa and Maria Cristina—daughters of the businessman Juan del Gallego of Cebu.

     In their affidavits, they said they were with Paco at the restaurant from about 10 p.m. of July 16 to early morning of July 17, about the time police said the kidnapping and rape with murder of the Chiong sisters took place.

     The security guard’s logbook at the condominium listed 2:45 a.m. as the time Paco went back to his unit.

     The next day, July 17, Paco’s lawyers said he was at the CCA taking an exam. This was also backed by the affidavits of CCA instructor Amadeo Gimenez and nine classmates of Paco.

     Mrs. Larrañaga said teachers’ class records, calendars and student papers were even presented in court to establish that her son was in Quezon City at the time.

     Paco arrived in Cebu in the evening of July 17 after taking the 5 p.m. flight of Philippine Airlines.

     Mrs. Larranaga said Paco came home to Cebu to be with her on her birthday on July 20. She said Paco didn’t have classes from July 18 to 21.

     Paco’s lawyers said Judge Ocampo disregarded the witnesses’ testimonies and documentary evidence.

     Mrs. Larranaga said personnel from four local airlines flying the Manila-Cebu route showed flight manifests indicating that Paco did not take any flight to Cebu from July 16 to 17 except the 5 p.m. PAL flight.

     Airport personnel Capt. Romeo Lisondra and Rolando Tabanera also offered testimony that Paco was not on any chartered flight to Cebu.

     The lawyers said Judge Ocampo even limited the time of the defense’s cross examination of the prosecution’s witnesses. Ocampo also jailed Paco’s lawyer. A lawyer from the Cebu City Public Attorney’s Office represented Paco to the opposition of his private lawyer.

     They said the judge favored the testimony of the state witness, Davidson Rusia, who admitted raping Jacqueline. Rusia is a former felon in the United States who went to prison twice.

     Rusia said he was with Paco on the evening of July 16. In media interviews, Mrs. Thelma Chiong, mother of Marijoy and Jacqueline, said Paco and Josman Aznar visited their house several times in 1991. She said Paco courted Marijoy.

      Paco’s lawyers said Rusia’s testimony was riddled with discrepancies. Rusia, they said, testified that his conscience forced him to come out and be a witness, but his cellmate at the PNP jail said the police tortured Rusia to admit to the crime.

     Mrs. Larrañaga said the prosecution prevented them from presenting vital witnesses such as Florencio Villarin, regional chief of the National Bureau of Investigation; Dr. Lancauan, a medicolegal dentist; and Mario Alesna, a Pag-asa meteorologist.

     Judge Ocampo, she said, also did not allow experts Prof. Jerome Bailen and Dr. Racquel Fortun to testify and show their findings that the physical evidence presented by the prosecution were mishandled by the police that it should not be a basis for convicting the accused.

     More importantly, she said, the judge barred Paco from testifying in his own defense.

     On May 5, 1999, Judge Ocampo convicted Larrañaga, Aznar, Adlawan, Cano, Balansag and the Uy brothers and sentenced them to double-life imprisonment.

     Mrs. Larrañaga said that by convicting Paco, Judge Ocampo “succumbed to public pressure and the cry for blood.”

     “He [Ocampo] chose to believe the testimony of a convicted felon, a confessed liar, a witness who was to be acquitted in exchange for his finger-pointing,” she said, alluding to Rusia.

     She accused Ocampo of disregarding established rights of any accused by preventing Paco from having a good lawyer, and being able to testify in court.

     The case took a bizarre turn. Five months after convicting Paco and his companions, Judge Ocampo was found dead inside his room at the Waterfront Hotel in Mactan with a gunshot would in the head. An autopsy report said the judge killed himself.

     On May 10, 2000, Paco filed an appeal with the Supreme Court and raised the supposed errors committed by Judge Ocampo in his decision.

     In his appeal, Paco said the Cebu Regional Trial Court denied him his rights to due process when it refused him to testify in his defense despite manifesting his willingness to do so.

     He also said Judge Ocampo denied his right to be heard and to produce evidence in his behalf. Moreover, he said, he was denied a fair and impartial trial when he said Ocampo humiliated the defense witnesses.

     Paco said the trial court committed an error by allowing Rusia to testify and become a state witness even though he was proven to have been convicted of crimes in the US.

     The appeal said Rusia lacked the credibility and his testimony was “incredible, contrived and unbelievable.”

     Paco also said that after determining that the crime of rape and murder remained unproven, Ocampo ruled that the only crime committed was kidnapping and that prosecution witnesses Rusia and Rolando Dacillo stated that Larrañaga was not among the kidnappers of the Chiong sisters.

     He said the court rejected his alibi and refused to hear the testimony of witnesses to back his alibi.

     On September 14, 2000, the Office of the Solicitor General argued that Rusia was a credible witness and that Paco was provided his rights to due process.

     On February 3 this year, the Supreme Court not only affirmed the decision of the Cebu court but imposed the death penalty to all the accused except James Andrew Uy, who was a minor at the time of the alleged crime. Uy got a life term.

     Twelve Supreme Court justices voted against Paco’s appeal; Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. and Justice Adolf Azcuna recused themselves.

     “Sadly, instead of correcting the grave injustice committed by the RTC, the Supreme Court 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 prosecutors and the trial court,” Mrs. Larrañaga said.

     On March 2, Paco filed a motion for reconsideration and request for oral argument, reiterating his stand that he was denied rights to due process. This was followed by a supplement to the motion for reconsideration on March 25 regarding the alleged mishandling of the evidence based on the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Racquel Fortun.

     Paco Larrañaga's case has drawn the attention of the international legal community. Fair Trials Abroad Trust, a European Union organization, wrote an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to the Supreme Court in support of Paco’s motion for reconsideration.

     The group campaigns for the existence and application of basic principles of justice according to international standards. It is backing Paco because he is Filipino and Spanish.

     Also supporting Paco were the Madrid Bar Association, Basque Bar and Barcelona Bar, which all wrote an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to accept the amicus curiae briefs.

     European Parliament president Patrick Cox also wrote President Arroyo on behalf of Paco.

     “I appeal to you, therefore, to use your good offices to have this sentence reviewed not only because the death penalty is abhorrent to European values and does not reflect the respect of human dignity and human rights of a modern nation, but also because of what I understand were serious procedural and other irregularities in the trial proceedings,” Cox said.

     On September 21 the Supreme Court denied Paco’s July 27 and March 2 petitions. The motion for reconsideration is still pending.

     Mrs. Larrañaga said they are now on their last leg to seek justice.

     “We are now on the last leg of our quest for justice—justice for my son, now 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. We call on you to assist us in sorting through the rubble of emotions and passions, in order that the evidence be properly seen, weighed and evaluated,” she said.

     Mrs. Larrañaga is appealing for the acquittal of Paco. “I ask you to help me get justice for my son—don’t let them murder Paco. He is innocent.”

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