Saturday, November 27, 2004  

OPINION

Time to review the......... Chiong sisters murder.... case
     

     Like voicing a refrain, as the defense protested his refusal to accommodate the witnesses they wanted to present, expert witnesses included, he would say, “Tell that to the Court of Appeals” or “Bring it to the Supreme Court.”

     The judge was the late Cebu Regional Trial Court (Branch 7) Judge Martin Ocampo, now dead; the trial was the Chiong sisters case, a case that convulsed Cebu and the nation in 1997 when the crime of illegal detention, rape and murder occurred.

     Amid the glare of publicity, media speculation, public cries for blood and a judge racing against a 90-day deadline (which was not met), the case was heard—in what now seems upon review—most irregularly.

     For the crimes imputed, seven young men have been convicted, six of them meted death sentences, the seventh escaping lethal injection for two life terms because he was 16 when the crime was committed.

     The public usually does not want to second-guess the police, the prosecution and the defense in a trial, except when other elements are included, such as the prominence of the personalities involved, the debatable issues or values that led to the crime, the rumors floating around, the extraneous but very real currents of power and influence that swirl about in a society less than equal, especially when it comes to the delivery of justice. In other words, when the case is sensational for these qualities and the media play them up, the public invariably gets involved. 

     In my opinion, if it makes for a fairer trial, it is a welcome thing. If it does not, as now seems the case at hand as the families of the young men convicted bring the facts of how it was conducted to the public, it is still a fit subject for consideration. The judiciary is part of society, the judicial process should reflect what society stands for; therefore, the public has the right to be involved as observers and commentators. We all presumably want justice: trials are open to the public, public opinion must count, meaning informed public opinion that relies on facts not bias.

     One of the young men now waiting on death row for his appeal for reconsideration pending with the Supreme Court is Francisco Juan “Paco” Larrañaga. He has been made the most prominent of the seven because his family has a connection to the socially and politically influential Osmeña clan from Cebu, none of whom, to their credit, have intruded into the case.

     Mrs. Larrañaga, Paco’s mother, is an Osmeña on her mother’s side. She was born Margarita Gonzales y Osmeña and married Manuel Larrañaga, a Basque jai alai player who came to the Philippines in 1966. She says that while she leads a comfortable life, she is not rich as others mean it in this country when they talk about rich. This family does not have private boats or planes, or charter them, as implied in the court proceedings by the judge when Paco presented his alibi. It does not send children abroad for schooling as a rule. Paco was enrolled at a culinary school in Quezon City from June 1997. His family leased a small condominium for him.

     He is better off than the majority of Filipinos, but not equal or near the very rich and powerful among us. But he has been painted as one of them.

     The crime was committed on July 16 to early 17, 1997. Paco was in Manila at school on July 16, morning and afternoon, at a gathering late that night in Quezon City, back at school the next day until early afternoon. Then he took the 5 p.m. plane to Cebu, arriving at his house there close to 9 p.m. after dropping off a friend who was on the plane with him. The teachers, all 35 classmates at the school, and the friend he dropped off offered to testify on his behalf. Only a few were accommodated—a teacher and a few classmates—but their testimonies, from the record of the judge’s comments, demeaned and ridiculed. The defense at one point asked for his recusal on the basis of bias. The classmates’ and friends’ testimonies were crucial, as they backed up Paco’s alibi that he was far from the scene of the crime. But Judge Ocampo held that the alibi had to show not just reasonable doubt but physical impossibility. When they tried to show him, he refused to accept defense witnesses from the four airlines flying the Manila-Cebu route. They had a manifest of July 16 and 17 clearly showing Paco only at the 5 p.m. flight to Cebu, on July 17, long after the crime. The judge refused to allow the Cebu airport personnel to state that Paco did not arrive in any chartered craft from Manila on those days. He maintained that Paco could still be at the scene of the crime. He said it was physically possible because it is “only one hour from Manila to Cebu,” ignoring the time it takes to travel to the airport from Quezon City, the airport wait, the arrival process which makes one hour turn into many hours.

     The most glaring proof of the suppression of defense witnesses was the denial to Paco to testify in defense of himself despite manifestations in court by both Paco and his defense counsel that they were requesting to do so.

    
Even expert witnesses for the defense were not allowed, like the Pagasa weather expert who was to testify that on July 16 and 17 there were heavy rains all over Cebu, thus casting doubt on one fingerprint of Josman Aznar, one of the accused, in a diskette mmm

found with the body said to be  that  of  Marijoy Chiong  at  the foot of a  ravine. Moreover, this fingerprint was a rolled-over one, very unusual for a casual contact. One does roll over fingerprints in public documents or when someone is assisting the fingerprinting for official purposes.

     Which brings us to the planting of evidence, which has been proven in the case of the firearms charges brought on two of the defendants (in order to rationalize their arrests) but which another court threw out as improbable if not false. In this context the fingerprint of Josman Aznar at the scene on the diskette after continuous rains makes it very suspicious. A point to note is that the ravine involved in Tanawan, Carcar, outside Cebu, is a common dumping ground for corpses. Incidentally, Aznar has also been tagged as rich and influential. The Aznars own a large educational institute in Cebu. They are a large clan of well-off and not-so-well-off. Aznar’s mother is a widow and at the periphery; if that makes her rich, it would be a surprise, especially to herself.

     Other expert witnesses were ignored. One was the forensic pathologist, Dr. Raquel Fortun, whose own report disputed the findings of the medicolegal technician for being incorrect, based on incomplete tests and the fact that the body was autopsied after it was embalmed. Prof. Jerome Bailen also had similar comments casting doubt on whether the body was indeed that of Marijoy Chiong. No DNA was taken, exhumation was not allowed. In fact, Judge Ocampo himself had serious doubts about whether the body was indeed Marijoy Chiong’s and demonstrated it by meting out life sentences, not death sentences.

     This uncertainty could be pursued. There being no corpus delicti, where is the crime? It was the Solicitor General’s Office in its comments to the plea for reconsideration that insisted that the crime merited death sentences, to which the Supreme Court acquiesced.

     Meanwhile, the witnesses for the prosecution were dubious. The principal one, Davidson Rusia, was one of the originally accused. He is said to have confessed because his “conscience was bothering him.” In truth, he only confessed after he was arrested, jailed and—his cellmate says—tortured. He has admitted torture in the aftermath of the trial from which he was discharged as an accused, and it is public knowledge that the Chiongs supported him financially throughout the trial. Rusia is not a credible witness on the basis of “false in one, false in all” principal of testimony.

     He has been convicted twice in the United States for crimes of moral turpitude—burglary, forging and cashing checks. When presented with proof of one conviction, he admitted it but kept quiet about the second one which eventually he had to admit upon presentation of proof. A proven liar’s testimony cannot have the weight his was given on this case. Other witnesses who surfaced months after the crime were those of police assets or people whose memory may have been guided through stories and rumors.

     Someone claimed seeing Larrañaga at 2:30 a.m. in the dark and rainy night. The witness said he was buying barbecue at that time in a sleepy out-of-the-way town where people turn early. The fact is  that  until Larrañaga was pointed to as one of the culprits,  not even the Chiongs in their first interview with the NBI (who was the first agency to handle the case) mentioned him as a friend, acquaintance, or classmate of their daughters. Here, it must be pointed out that the NBI agent-in-charge, Florencio Villarin, an experienced and well-commended career official who took the primary statements in the case, was not allowed to testify. So was the National Police dentist who was said to have noted discrepancies in the dental records of the corpse’s and Marijoy Chiong's. 

     In sum, we have shoddy police work, suppression of evidence from defense witnesses, prosecution witnesses with doubtful credibility, court procedures that left much to be desired, evident bias on the part of the judge and much more to complain about—a rush to judgment on a major crime.

     We all want the culprits, whoever they are, to be found and tried and found guilty without reasonable doubt. And with the death penalty in play which is vindictive, unchristian and irretrievable once carried out, we have to be clear that there is guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This is not the case here.

     The Supreme Court is the one and last hope to put things in order. A mistrial may have to be called. Oral arguments may be needed. A serious look at the plea for reconsideration may have to be done. This is asking for a lot of work, precious time and a fresh look by the Supreme Court. But if the principle that it is better for the guilty to go free rather than for even one innocent person to be punished unjustly, in this case, put to death, then it is their duty.

     It is not just Paco Larrañaga that we speak for, but the others condemned with him: like the Uy brothers, whose family was into selling encyclopedias and is now so deeply demoralized; the so-called driver and conductor of the hired van—working-class people, messed up in one evening and facing death today. It has never been fully explained why, with two cars at their disposal and one used throughout, the accused still needed a hired van with a driver and a conductor, strangers who would become witnesses to the crime.

     Justice and how it is meted out in any society must be perceived to be fair no matter how harsh the penalties. This means the process must be acceptable in a reasonable and civilized sense. The accused must be presumed innocent, must be given the chance to testify in their own defense, present witnesses to demonstrate their innocence. Evidence must be beyond doubt, not manufactured or planted.

     The truth must come out, In this case, it has not. And as the late Judge Ocampo himself intoned repeatedly (in case of doubts), “Bring it to the Supreme Court.”

NOTE:   THE ABOVE TEXT IS THE FAITHFUL REPRODUCTION OF THE ORIGINAL
                                  DOCUMENT REFORMATTED FOR  CLEARER APPRECIATION.                                        

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