An eye for an eye: Can the death penalty bring justice to victims?

Mara Cepeda
An eye for an eye: Can the death penalty bring justice to victims?
Hannah* was only 5 when a close relative raped her. Years later, she still does not wish the death penalty on her tormentor. Only God, she says, can take away life.

MANILA, Philippines – Hannah* was once a cheerful child, spending most of her days running around the streets of Payatas. But all that changed when she was 5, when two male relatives – both of whom she trusted like a brother – conspired to rape her. 

She recalled playing outside with her cousins when she was suddenly led to one of her relative’s houses in the neighborhood. The house was empty as the occupants were at work for the day.  

“So that time, ‘yung kapatid ng asawa ng pinsan ko – I think 11 or 12 years old – nakita ko na lang siya na nakapatong sa ‘kin. ‘Di ko alam kung paano nangyari,” recalled Hannah. 

(That time, the brother of my cousin’s spouse – I think he was 11 or 12 years old then – I just saw him on top of me. I don’t know it happened.) 

She said another cousin of hers stood outside the door and served as the lookout. He ignored her pleas for help. 

“Hindi ko alam kung anong nangyayari. Bakit ‘di niya ko tinutulungan? ‘Di ko alam kung ano ‘yung pinag-usapan nilang dalawa. Hanggang tapos na. Nangyari na ‘yung pangbababoy sa ‘kin,” said Hannah as tears streamed from her eyes. 

(I didn’t know what was happening. Why wasn’t he helping me? I don’t know what they talked about. Then it was over. He was done violating me.)

Her rapist warned her not to tell anyone. 

“Demonyo na ‘yung tingin ko sa taong ‘yun. Hindi na kuya, ‘di na kagaya nang dati na akala ko kuya na poprotektahan ako,” she said. 

(I looked at him as a demon after that. Not like an older brother anymore, a brother who I thought would protect me.)

Hannah said her tormentors have since avoided visiting her house. She kept her ordeal a secret to her family for 33 years, until she shared her experience to a female cousin during a spiritual retreat in Baguio City. They both vowed never to tell anyone again.

Now 39 years old, Hannah knows Congress is moving to revive the capital punishment for heinous crimes like rape following President Rodrigo Duterte’s support for it 

The House of Representatives, in fact, is set to begin its plenary debates on the matter this week.

Hannah, however, does not wish the death penalty on her tormentors.  

‘God punished them’

“Kung gusto kong mamatay ‘yung nang-rape sa akin? Tingin ko hindi. Hindi sapat ‘yung kamatayan sa ginawa,” said Hannah. 

(Do I want my rapist to die? I don’t think so. Death is not enough for what was done to me.) 

“Para sa akin, hindi. Ang kamatayan kasi, alam ko, ang nagbigay ng buhay sa atin ang Diyos. So sa tingin ko, ang Diyos lang din ang may karapatan na kumuha ng buhay,” she added. 

(For me, no. I know God gave life to us. So I think only God has the right to take life away.)

As a teen, she decided to volunteer at a church organization. She received counseling for her ordeal. Hannah found renewed strength to become a community volunteer, and later, an overseas Filipino worker in Qatar and Dubai. 

Hannah said her rapist eventually had his own family, but his wife died of depression and one of his children passed away due to an illness. 

Her cousin, meanwhile, remained unlucky financially, jumping from one job to another without properly making ends meet. 

“‘Yung mga nangyari sa kanila, alam ko ang Diyos ang nagparusa sa kanila. Hindi man sila naparusahan ng tao o ng batas, pero ang Diyos ang alam ko ang patuloy na parurusahan sila sa nagawa nila,” said Hannah.

(The things that happened to them, I know it was God who punished them. They may not have been punished by man or by the law, but I know God will continue punishing them for what they did.)

Unlike her, the President is a believer of an eye-for-an eye justice. Known as “The Punisher”, Duterte said capital punishment would be a way to exact payment from perpetrators of heinous crimes

His allies in Congress, like Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, House justice committee chairperson Reynaldo Umali, and Senator Manny Pacquiao, argued the same way – death is justifiable for those who have committed unspeakable crimes. 

LETHAL INJECTION CHAMBER. An inmate prepares the lethal injection chamber at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa on January 9, 2004, two years before former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished the capital punishment in the country. File photo by Joel Nito/AFP

But for lawyer Theodore Te, who was once the legal counsel of death row convict Leo Echegaray, there is no reason that can justify the State taking the life of another person. 

“Personally and professionally, I’ve said that from the start and I’ll keep on saying it – you cannot justify it. I don’t see any justification,” said Te, who was part of the Free Legal Assistance Group and is now Supreme Court (SC) spokesperson. 

Te helped Echegaray appeal before the High Court after the Quezon City Regional Trial Court found Echegaray guilty of raping his own stepdaughter on September 7, 1994. The SC affirmed the lower court’s decision on June 25, 1996. Echegaray filed a motion for appeal, but it was denied on January 19, 1999. 

The convict was then executed through lethal injection on February 5, 1999, sparking national debate on the capital punishment that later led to its abolition in 2006. 

The ‘shock value’ that goes away

Pro-death penalty advocates argue that bringing back capital punishment will scare the public and deter people from committing heinous crimes. 

Umali, for example, said high-profile inmates at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) are emboldened to continue the prison drug trade since they have already been meted the highest punishment in the land – life imprisonment. Only death scares the convicts, he argued. 

But Te said this is flawed reasoning, citing his own experience as a lawyer for Echegaray.

Echegaray was the first to be executed since Martial Law, and Te recalled the event was like a “circus” – there was media frenzy, lawmakers gave one statement after another, and anti-death penalty groups protested outside the NBP.

DEATH VIA LETHAL INJECTION. Photographers take pictures of the body of death convict Leo Echegaray after his body was transferred to a funeral morgue near Manila on February 5, 1999. File photo by Alex de la Rosa/AFP

But the scene was no longer the same when 3 other convicts – Dante Piandiong, Archie Bulan, and Jesus Morallos – were executed the same year. 

“Everyone was there – international, local [media]. And then after a while, by the 3rd execution, wala na (no one was there). No one was covering it. Not anymore. Novelties wear off. Namatay na eh. Namatay na, wala namang nangyari (They already died. They died and nothing happened),” said Te. 

“That’s the difficulty there. Significant din ‘yun (That’s significant) because even from the media point of view, after a while, nawawala ‘yung interest eh (the interest fades away). Because people get used to it. You get numbed to it and the effect is gone. So whatever shock value, whatever deterrent value, whatever informative value, wala na eh (it disappeared),” he added.

A better solution to address the crime problem, said pro-life advocates, is to fix the Philippines’ “flawed and corrupt” justice system first

Body count and deterrence

In defending the death penalty, Alvarez had said that only a few convicts were executed when capital punishment was still being implemented in the country. (READ: Alvarez on Church opposition to death penalty: ‘Why protect evil?’)

“When you look back, tingan mo ‘yung history, ‘yung record, while death penalty was there, halos wala namang na-execute. Why? Because of ‘yung mga persistent lobbyists ‘di ba? And ‘yung lack of political will nung mga presidente,” said the Speaker.

(When you look at history, the record, while the death penalty was there, there was hardly anyone who was executed. Why? It was because of the persistent lobbyists, right? And the lack of political will of the past presidents.)

Te argued, however, that the number of convicts executed cannot be used to gauge the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. 

ANTI-DEATH PENALTY. Te believes the death penalty is not a true deterrent to crime. File photo by Rappler

“I think that’s a dangerous argument because I have no idea how the science will be like if you say there’s a correlation between deterrence and number of deaths. Because I don’t think anyone can invent an algorithm to tell with certainty that if you kill an X number of people, then crime will stop,” said Te.  

“So how many is he saying? How many do you need to kill before you can say, ‘O kita mo? Deterrent! Titigil ‘yung crimes (See? It’s a deterrent! Crimes will stop).'” 

An eye for an eye?

Unlike Te, however, Hannah is convinced killing criminals may be justifiable if they murdered another person. 

“Ngayong nasa ganito akong edad, nanonood na ko ng mga news… Buhay ang kinuha mo, buhay rin ang kapalit niyan. Though may batas tayo na magpo-proseso nito, pero depende nga sa sitwasyon,” said Hannah. 

(Now that I am at this age, I watch the news… If you take life away, then life is the payment, too. But we do have a law that processes this, and it should depend on the situation.) 


As an example, she said she would accept a death penalty sentence on a person who killed a neighbor after a quarrel.

“Naniniwala ako dun na hindi ‘yun aksidente kundi talagang sinadya… Dahil dun, naniniwala ako na buhay din ng taong kumuha ng buhay ng isang tao ang kabayaran. ‘Pag murder, oo [ako sa death penalty],” said Hannah.

(I believe that’s no accident but really intentional… Because of that, I believe the life of a person who took away the life of another is the proper payment for the crime. If it’s murder, I support the death penalty.)

The House leadership, however, is expecting to garner more votes for the death penalty bill if it will be reimposed for drug-related crimes only, not necessarily murder. The Duterte administration is currently waging its bloody war on drugs. 

Te said, however, that the burden rests on lawmakers, who must be able to prove that the drug-related crimes now are more heinous than before. 

The 1987 Constitution allows the return of capital punishment, but only if Congress finds “compelling reasons involving heinous crimes.”

“What makes a drug offense a heinous crime? Congress must determine that. It cannot just simply say drug war. Why is it heinous? How is it now different from the drug cases now? Anong nagbago? (What changed?)” said Te.

Congressmen should therefore brace for intense debates at the plenary. Some administration lawmakers have already opposed capital punishment, while opposition legislators continue to urge their colleagues to exercise a conscience vote

It remains to be seen, however, if Duterte’s hold over the majority in Congress will trump personal convictions against the death penalty. – 

*Name changed to protect her privacy

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.