Documentary inspires campaign to overturn wrongful convictions

The murder and rape of two women in 1997 outraged the nation. Seven men were convicted; one filmmaker believes they were framed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 7:00am


A gripping documentary about a wealthy, young man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two sisters has catalysed a movement to expose wrongful convictions in the Philippines.

The award-winning Give Up Tomorrow follows Francisco Juan Larranaga as he is transformed from a carefree, culinary arts student into one of the nation's most vilified and hated people whose adult life is lost behind bars.

The documentary presents a compelling case that corrupt authorities framed Larranaga, then aged 19, and six other young men for the 1997 rape and murder of the two sisters in the central Philippine city of Cebu.

"This was a systematic failure of the justice system, and of society," the producer of the film, Marty Syjuco, who is related by marriage to Larranaga said after a screening of the movie in the Philippines recently.

"He didn't stand a chance from day one. There was no presumption of innocence. From the time he was arrested and paraded for the media he was already judged guilty by the public."

The killings of Jacqueline and Marijoy Chiong, aged 23 and 21, triggered public outrage across the Catholic nation.

Under enormous political pressure from the authorities to quickly resolve the case, police accused Larranaga of being the ring-leader of a gang that abducted, raped and killed the Chiongs.

However, dozens of witnesses said Larranaga was in Manila, the nation's capital, 550 kilometres away, at the time of the abductions and murders. He always maintained he had never before met his co-accused.

The documentary shows how the nation's media accepted the police account as fact and incited hatred against Larranaga, a member of a rich Filipino-Spanish family who had earlier been placed on a police watch list for minor crimes.

After months of emotionally charged hearings that the UN Human Rights Commission would later describe as an "unfair" trial, the judge presiding over the case found the seven guilty.

Larranaga and the others appealed the conviction. But the country's highest judicial body, the Supreme Court, instead raised their life sentences to death by lethal injection.

After nine years in jail, Larranaga's first apparent piece of luck occurred in 2006 when the Philippines abolished the death penalty.

Larranaga was extradited to Spain in 2009. But, according to the documentary, authorities there would only reduce his sentence and release him on parole if he admitted his guilt.

The documentary ends with Larranaga saying he would not admit to something he had never done, even if it meant he had to spend the rest of his life in jail.

While the documentary does not seek to solve the case of who murdered the sisters, it shows that when they went missing their father was about to testify in a case against an alleged drug lord for whom he worked.

The father decided not to testify against the alleged drug lord, whom the documentary showed as having close relationships with local police.

The film, which premiered in the Philippines last year, has become a must-see cautionary tale on the nation's justice system, with more than 100 law schools having signed up to screen it for their students.

It also inspired the creation in December of the Innocence Project, a network of law schools and students who offer free legal help to convicts to help them overturn wrongful convictions.

"The movie highlighted the defects and imperfections of the justice system," project spokesman and law professor at the University of the Philippines Jose Manguera Jose said. "There are so many wrongful convictions."