Francisco Juan Larrañaga, or Paco, as he is called, is not a character who will melt you to tears. He has sharp mestizo features, is hefty and flabby, and who, once upon a time, was a bad boy of Cebu. During his teens, he and his gang figured in scuffles, building a notorious reputation in the city.
Larrañaga wasn’t deprived of opportunities at all; his family is wealthy and landed (his mother is an Osmeña) and he was sent to a culinary school in an upper-middle class section of Quezon City.
But what the country’s criminal justice system did to him, abetted by a public and media crying for blood and apparently by powerful figures, runs against all the tenets of fair trial and justice. This is the heart of “Give Up Tomorrow,” a moving and compelling documentary on the wrongful conviction of Larrañaga.
Now 35, Larrañaga has been behind bars for 15 years, 12 in the Philippines’ New Bilibid Prison, and the last 3 in a Spanish jail. (Paco’s father is a Spanish national.)
The title of the film comes from a quote from Larrañaga. In an interview, he said that he is able to cope by living for the day, and “giving up tomorrow.”
The film by Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco makes a strong case for Larrañagas innocence. He and six others were convicted for the July 1997 kidnapping and rape of 23-year old Marijoy Chiong, a local beauty, and her sister, 20-year old Jacqueline. Marijoy’s mutilated body was found in a ravine in Carcar, outside Cebu City, while, to this day, Jacqueline’s body remains missing.
This despicable crime led to what was dubbed in Cebu as the “trial of the century,” a riveting saga that reached the Philippine Supreme Court, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and the Spanish government.
Collins and Syjuco lay out the timeline and facts of the case through interviews with the major characters including the Larrañagas (Paco, his parents, and brother and sister) and Thelma Chiong, the victims’ mother (she has since become the national vice president of the group Crusade Against Violence), the prosecutors, defense lawyers, witnesses, and journalists who covered the trial, supported by actual footage of the trial and events surrounding it, and documentary evidence.
Paco was in Manila
About 40 witnesses, not all of whom were called to testify in court, said that Larrañaga was in class on the day the crime was committed, July 16, 1997. Among them were his classmates and teacher. The attendance sheet listed his name. Representatives of 4 airline companies testified that Larrañaga was not in their manifest on July 15 or 16. He flew to Cebu on the 17th.
There are other details in the film that buttress Larrañaga’s alibi but, swarmed by a hostile public and media, the Cebu judge found all these unconvincing.
It was the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, who claimed to have been part of the gang that mercilessly raped the Chiong sisters and identified Larrañaga et al as his companions, that swayed the judge and the crowd.
The film shows, however, that this witness, Davidson Valiente Rusia, claimed to have been tortured by the police to pin down Larrañaga and the others.
Judge Martin Ocampo sentenced Larrañaga and company to 2 life terms; his decision was met with a roaring applause and jeers for the convicted. (In a dramatic twist, the judge later killed himself.)
Both sides appealed to the Supreme Court, with the prosecution seeking the death penalty for the convicts. The Court listened and meted out death by lethal injection.
Larrañaga brought his case to the UN Human Rights Committee which found numerous violations of the convict’s rights during the course of the trial, from the lower court to the Supreme Court, and recommended, in 2006, a “commutation of his death sentence and early consideration for release on parole.”
This case is reminiscent of Hubert Webb’s ordeal. The difference is: Webb was acquitted after 14 years of spending the prime of his life in jail.
Like Larrañaga, the testimony of a star witness, Jessica Alfaro, put Webb at the scene of the crime when evidence showed that he was in the US at the time of the murder of the Vizconde family.
At the time, the court, the public and the media believed Alfaro.
“Give Up Tomorrow” is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of what can go wrong with our criminal justice system, a nightmare that haunts not just Larrañaga but ordinary people. It’s a horrible experience and it destroys people’s lives.
The judge in Spain who is reviewing Larrañaga’s case wants him to admit guilt before he can be released on parole.
The film is so intense that even after it ended, I was still glued to my seat. I didn’t feel like leaving the theater. There was a lot to think about, questions that needed answers, and the urge to talk about this tragic story, compare notes, and share it with others.
Thus, here’s my contribution to the conversation that Collins’ and Syjuco’s film started. - Rappler.com
(Check out http://www.giveuptomorrow.com/ for the screening schedule.)