How does a man who 42 witnesses say was hundreds of miles away from a crime continue to be on death row in the Philippines?
That’s what Michael Collins’s documentary sets to find out, more than a decade after Paco Larrañaga was sentenced to life and then to death for a murder he did not commit. In addition to showing his family’s fight for freedom, the film reveals the strange case of one mother’s quest for justice in the killing of her two daughters, even if it means locking up the wrong men.
Collins recently answered some of my questions via email.
How did you discover this story?
In 1999, Paco Larrañaga was first sentenced to life in prison in The Philippines. He appealed to the Supreme Court and his family patiently waited for the decision, confident he would be released. But in 2004, the Supreme Court elevated his sentence to death by lethal injection. This is when I got involved.
Paco’s brother-in-law (my producer Marty’s brother) told me the situation and asked if I could make a web animation depicting some of the injustices Paco suffered during his trial. Before agreeing to this, I researched exhaustively and eventually, was given a letter by “The Unheard 35” — they are Paco’s witnesses, classmates primarily, who were with him in Manila when the Chiong sisters went missing in Cebu, an entire island region away. Most of the witnesses were never allowed to even testify. The letter expressed their outrage and frustration with the Judge, the media, and the Philippine public who had long ago tried and found Paco guilty despite the obvious proof otherwise.
The injustices I read about were shocking. I learned that Paco was 19 and had just moved to Manila when he was plucked from his life and put in jail where he had been for seven years at that point. The letter moved me to tears. I was the same age as Paco and had moved to New York City seven years earlier. I thought about how much I had experienced, grown, and changed in those years and couldn’t imagine how it must have been for him and his family. In that regard, I felt an instant connection to him. Although I had never made a feature film prior, I knew that this was a story I wanted to tell and film, the perfect vehicle to do so.
It remains unclear by the end why this guy is still in jail. Isn’t there some mechanism that, with 42 witnesses, he should be automatically freed?
Unfortunately, all legal recourse was exhausted in the Philippines. And his situation was complicated somewhat by the Prisoner Exchange Treaty between Spain and the Philippines. So, even though he is serving out his sentence in Spain, the Philippines actually retains jurisdiction over him. Spain could release him on “parole” so that he would still technically be a prisoner, but they don’t have the authority to free him and clear him of the charges. It is because of this frustrating situation that we launched the Free Paco Now campaign (see FreePacoNow.com). The good news is that his case was recently taken up again by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
It seems like the suspect did some posturing early on to portray himself as more thuggish than he really is. Is that a fair assessment? If so, how much harm did that do his case?
When Paco was picked up, he was 19 years old, still a kid in many ways. His entire country had turned against him because the media had branded him a rapist and a murder. He was guilty in the public’s eyes long before the trial even began. All of the media that came out at the time was skewed towards reinforcing that image of him as a monster. They found one photo of him scowling and looking thuggish and printed endlessly.
So as the years passed and trial proceeded, Paco, who was living in one of the toughest prisons in the world, did become less innocent and appear harder, but I think that was only to be expected. During the many years that I spent with him over the course of filming I would say there are two very distinct sides to him: one that is a survivor who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years, and the other who is gentle and funny and overflowing with compassion for all those around him.
What’s the mother’s secret here? Why is she pushing so hard to have an innocent man locked up?
Mrs. Chiong is a complicated person to figure out. One thing is certain and that is her two daughters went missing in July 1997. So if they are the first two victims in all of this, she is certainly the third. I think after the police spent months with no leads, her anger and frustration grew tremendously. When they finally chose these fall guys, even though they had no evidence, I think she chose to believe it out of desperation. And perhaps that would help explain all of her lies that would follow. Because they had nothing solid to convict Paco and the others with, she began telling the most horrible (and quite obvious) lies as a way to establish some sort of motive. This seemed like an act of desperation, as she needed someone to suffer for the crime. Over time perhaps she began to believe her own lies. It is extremely frustrating because her lies were so outrageous and totally unfounded that any investigative journalist at the time could have easily disproven them — but the media made no effort to dig deeper and printed every story Mrs. Chiong and the police dreamt up as if it was fact.
Are the other guys arrested in connection with Paco also innocent?
After working on this film for seven years, doing extensive research and field work on the case, and interviewing aver 100 people involved, I can confidently say that all of these men are absolutely, undoubtedly innocent — even David Rusia, whose testimony (given in exchange for his freedom) got them all convicted. One of my biggest regrets is that there was not enough space in the film to focus more on Paco’s co-accused. I met and interviewed them all as well as some of their families. Many of these guys were tortured by the police, as Rusia was, and promised freedom if they would implicate Paco in the crime. They all refused. We have plans to release a series of “webisodes” online that will feature their story as well as some other avenues that we could not explore at length in the film.
What’s the general state of the court system in the Philippines?
As a former US colony, the Philippine justice system was modeled after our own, in fact their entire government was. The one difference in the courts being, and it’s a big one, that they have no jury system. I would say their system is built in a way that could be very strong, but it’s the endemic corruption that makes it weak. It’s the police investigation procedures and their capacity to gather and properly store evidence that seem more lacking.
Could something like this happen in America?
Our justice system in the U.S. is definitely not as corrupt, and a case such as Paco’s where the accused are so obviously innocent probably never would have resulted in a conviction, nor even gone to trial. But we do have a long history convicting innocent people, many of whom end up on death row. The statistics from the Innocence Project show that more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing (see innocenceproject.org). I find it shocking that in a system proven to be so flawed, there is still death penalty in so many states.
Give Up Tomorrow will be screened on Saturday, January 28, 1 p.m., at the S.B. Museum of Art and Monday, January 30, 8:15 a.m., at the Metro 4.