A new documentary, “Give Up Tomorrow,”  brings the spotlight to an international wrongful convictions by focusing on the Paco Larrañaga case in the Philippines.  In 1999, Larrañaga and six others were convicted for the July 1997 kidnapping, rape and murder of 23-year-old Marijoy Chiong and her 20-year-old sister Jacqueline.   But Larrañaga’s case gets much more complicated and demonstrates how deeply flawed a justice system can be.

On July 16th, 1997, on the island of Cebu, the Chiong sisters disappeared while waiting for their father to pick them up from work.  Later, a bloodied, handcuffed, and blindfolded body was found.   This body was later identified as being Marijoy’s.  Her sister’s body was never found.   At the time of the sisters’ disappearance, Larrañaga was in Manila, 300 miles away.  However, Larrañaga, with a record of petty crimes, was arrested and charged with kidnap, rape, and murder.

After Larrañaga’s arrest, the media frenzy intensified and the Chiong’s mother, Thelma, became the focus of public attention.   The public and government pressure to convict Larrañaga increased as Thelma’s sister was personal secretary to Joseph Estrada, the newly elected president of the Philippines.  There was no physical evidence linking Larrañaga to the crime.  However, eight months after Larrañaga’s arrest, the prosecution found one eyewitness, a young drug addict named Davidson Rusia.  Rusia confessed to police that he was present with the others when they raped and murdered the Chiong sisters.

At trial, Larrañaga’s counsel was only given 30 minutes to cross examine Rusia, the prosecution’s main witness and sole source of evidence against the defendants.  Rusia’s cellmates later reported that Rusia had been repeatedly tortured before confessing.  In addition, the judge would not allow all of Larrañaga’s alibi witnesses to testify.  Three months after the trial ended, the judge issued his decision finding Larrañaga guilty.  Although Philippine law required the death penalty for a guilty verdict, the judge sentenced Larrañaga  to two life sentences saying that there was insufficient evidence that the body was Marijoy’s.

Larrañaga appealed to the Supreme Court citing multiple Constitutional violations.  In the United State, an appellate court will affirm the conviction but may reduce the sentence.  In the Philippines, the Supreme Court did the reverse.  In 2004, the Supreme Court affirmed Larrañaga’s conviction and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

Following the 2004 decision, Larrañaga’s supporters began a campaign to gather widespread support for him.   According to FreePacoNow, the Larrañagas turned to Spain for help.  Larrañaga holds dual-citizenship thanks to his father Manuel, a Spaniard of Basque origin, and his family hoped he would be extended some protection by them.  Amnesty International also helped create nationwide momentum to free Larrañaga.  As more pressure was increasing against the government, Philipine President Gloira Arroyo abolished the nation’s death penalty in June 2006.

Finally, in 2009, Larrañaga was transferred to Spain under a new prisoner-transfer treaty to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  Although Larrañaga hoped that the Spanish prison board would grant him parole, the board will not do so unless he admits guilt.

While shocking, the reputation of the Philippines justice system shows that Larrañaga’s case is not unusual.  The Supreme Court of the Philippines released information in 2004 that cited a 71.77 percent judicial error rate in capital cases in the period from 1993 to 2004, when capital punishment was still legal, a percentage determined by the total number of death convictions that had been either reversed or pardoned. During this time, 651 of 907 convicted persons were saved from lethal injection due to wrongful conviction.

The case also brings to mind the increased attention in the United States of wrongful convictions happening around the world.  Recent cases receiving the most attention were those of  Amanda Knox and the Iranian hikers. Recently, several Western representative from innocence projects traveled to China for that country’s first wrongful convictions conference.   But Larrañaga’s case is reminiscent of the facts surrounding Jason Puracal’s conviction – little or no evidence supporting the charges against him and a trial where a guilty verdict was inevitable.  Similarly, after Puracal’s conviction, his family started a campaign to bring awareness to his wrongful conviction and reached out to international NGO’s.

I encourage everyone to watch “Give Up Tomorrow” and learn more about Larrañaga’s case,  Go to KPBS’ POV site to view the trailer and find out when and where the documentary will be shown in your area.