Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Paco Larrañaga case:.... Cebu's mistrial of the.... century?

     Former Ambassador Sedfrey Ordoñez, Felicitas Aquino Arroyo and Sandra Olaso Coronel, lawyers in the appeal of Spanish-Filipino citizen Francisco Juan “Paco” Larrañaga, claim he is the victim of a mistrial. They have asked the Supreme Court for a retrial for their client who languishes on death row.

     On February 3, 2004, the Supreme Court sentenced to death by lethal injection Paco and six others accused of the kidnapping and murder of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong on July 16, 1997 in Cebu.

     More than 35 witnesses comprising Paco’s teachers and classmates at the Center for Culinary Arts in Quezon City declared under penalty of perjury that he was in Metro Manila when the crime is said to have taken place in Cebu. However, the trial court considered irrelevant the testimonies of the few witnesses allowed to testify concerning Paco’s whereabouts.

     During his trial in the Cebu Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 7, defense lawyers sought to present evidence that on the evening of the crime, Paco, 19 at that time, was at a party with friends at the R&R Restaurant along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, and stayed there until early morning the following day. After the party, Paco returned to his Quezon City condominium at 2:45 a.m. the following day, as evidenced by the security guard’s logbook. Many other witnesses—classmates and companions at the R&R restaurant, were not allowed to testify.

     Chef Rowena Bautista, a teacher at the CCA, attested in court that she had seen Paco with a classmate in school at about 6:30 p.m. on July 16. He attended his second round of midterm exams on July 17 commencing at 8 a.m. These were scheduled exams, for which he has records to prove he took and passed. Paco did not leave for Cebu until late afternoon of July 17, 1997.

     Airline and airport personnel came to court with their respective flight manifests, showing that Paco did not take any flight on July 16, 1997 nor was he onboard any chartered aircraft that landed in or departed from Cebu during the relevant dates, except the 5 p.m. PAL flight on July 17, 1997 from Manila to Cebu.

     However, Cebu Judge Martin Ocampo disregarded the defense witnesses’ testimonies as well as other documentary pieces of evidence supporting Paco’s claim. Instead, Judge Ocampo placed Paco’s lawyer in jail for contempt, and forced a new lawyer from the Cebu City Public Attorney’s Office to represent Paco, despite lack of consultation and preparation and over the expressed desire of the accused to be represented by a counsel of his choice.

     “To make matters worse, despite Paco’s consistent offering to testify in his own defense, standing up and raising his arm to volunteer to testify during trial, he was disallowed and denied the chance by the trial court. The Court did not even want to hear what he had to say,” his mother, Margarita Larrañaga said in a statement.

     On May 5, 1999, Judge Ocampo ruled two terms of reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment)—20 to 40 years—each for Larrañaga and six others. The court also ordered the accused to indemnify the heirs of their victims, jointly and severally, in the amount of P200,000 in actual damages and P5,000,000 by way of moral and exemplary damages.

     The court favored the testimony of state witness Davidson Rusia who admitted that he raped Jacqueline. A convicted felon and sentenced to prison twice in the United States for other crimes, Rusia claimed that he was with Paco in Ayala Center, Cebu early in the evening of July 16—the very evening Larrañaga was at R&R Restaurant in Quezon City with his friends. Important to note is that Rusia was not known to Paco, and that Rusia only surfaced as a “state witness” 10 months after the event.

     “In convicting my son at age 21, Judge Ocampo disregarded all established and Constitutionally grounded rights accorded to any accused—his right to effective counsel, his right to testify for himself and adduce evidence in his behalf, his right to an impartial judge and his right to be presumed innocent,” Paco’s mother said.  

     Barely five months after issuing his decision, Judge Ocampo was found dead of a gunshot wound in the head on October 7, 1999 in his room at the Waterfront Hotel in Mactan. An official autopsy showed that suicide was the probable cause of death.

     Larrañaga appealed the Cebu RTC mistrial to the Supreme Court, raising basic constitutional infirmities in the procedure adopted by the police, the prosecution and the court, in coming up with the conviction. But on February 3, 2004, the Supreme Court affirmed Judge Ocampo’s decision and upgraded the penalty to death by lethal injection for six of the accused, including Paco. James Andrew Uy, a minor at the time of the alleged crime, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

     A motion for reconsideration cum request for oral argument was filed by Paco’s lawyers William Chua and Coronel on March 2, 2004, praying for the acquittal of Larranaga on the grounds of innocence and/or reasonable doubt or the declaration of a mistrial by Judge Ocampo. The request for oral argument was denied on September 21. The motion for reconsideration is pending.

     Lawyers Orodoñez, Arroyo, Chua, and Coronel filed a Supplement to Motion for Reconsideration on March 25 to support the claim of mishandling of evidence as confirmed by UP expert forensic pathologist Dr. Racquel Fortun.

     The motion to refer case to the Court of Appeals filed by Paco’s lawyers on July 27 was similarly denied. The facts and circumstances of the case would have been reviewed by the Court of Appeals, had the motion been granted by the Supreme Court.

     Prominent Cebu businessman Miguel del Gallego, whose three daughters executed sworn statements stating they were with Paco at R&R restaurant on the night of July 16 until early morning of the next day, declined to accept what would have been his 11th term as chairman of the Philippine Business for Social Progress-Visayas Regional Committee, to work full-time on the Larrañaga case. He heads the Crusade for Truth and Justice, campaigning for the acquittal of Paco and the other six accused (www.framedinthephilippines.com).

     Spanish NGOs and the Spanish media have fully supported Paco, including the Spanish president of Amnesty International. This in turn led Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos, Senate President Javier Rojo and Secretary of International Cooperation Leire Pajin to likewise publicly support Paco. Spanish Senate President Javier Rojo attended President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's inauguration in Cebu and spoke to her regarding the issue.

     International organizations including the Fair Trials Abroad Trust, a European Union Nongovernmental Organization, and the Madrid, Basque and Barcelona Bar Associations, have thrown their full support behind Paco, each presenting an Amicus Curiae Brief in support of Paco’s petitions to the Supreme Court, highlighting how by international standards, Paco was indeed denied his basic rights as an accused. Patrick Cox, who was European Parliament president at the time, also wrote a letter to President Arroyo, appealing for a fair trial for Larrañaga.

     According to the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court refused to accept receipt of the Amici Curiae Briefs, saying that it did not need the cooperation of the international barristers. This message was relayed to Spanish Consul General Emilio de Miguel, who had submitted the briefs in May, and in July 2004 to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which turned them over to the DOJ for transmittal to the Supreme Court.

     “After seven years, the case is now on the last leg of its quest for justice—justice both for Paco, now 27, who has been wrongfully placed on death row, and for the Chiong family who will never find peace with the death of an innocent,” Mrs. Larrañaga said.

                           DOCUMENT REFORMATTED FOR  CLEARER APPRECIATION.                                 

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