A Kafkaesque trial
In 2014, the investigative journalism podcast “Serial” broke new ground and became the most downloaded podcast in history. Its first season explored the 1999 murder of an 18-year-old girl in Baltimore, Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who claimed to be innocent, was convicted of the crime.
In 12 episodes, journalist Sarah Koenig detailed the complexities of the case, including mishandled evidence and nuances that cast doubt on the credibility of the star witness. It had the world spellbound. The consensus: Whether or not Syed was guilty, there was room for reasonable doubt.
Years later, in March 2018, a Maryland appeals court ruled that Syed deserved a new trial. “Serial’s” clear influence is a testament to the power of storytelling. For innocents who slip through the cracks of the criminal justice system, pressure from a popular media outlet represents a new recourse.
I thought of this when watching the 2011 documentary “Give Up Tomorrow.” It tells the story of Cebu’s “mistrial of the century,” about the 1997 alleged rape and murder of the Chiong sisters Jacqueline and Marijoy, and the seven men who were convicted for the crimes. Years ago, it stirred international interest in the cause of Paco Larrañaga, the so-called “gang leader” described as the privileged scion of an influential family, and said to be responsible for the crime—despite 42 witnesses providing him a solid alibi, and despite the only real evidence coming from the dubious testimony of a convicted felon.
The film, whose producer is related to Larrañaga by affinity, exposes what the webpage calls a “Kafkaesque extravaganza,” from the “circus” of a trial, to the suspects’ conviction, to Larrañaga’s transfer to a Spanish jail. Whether your sympathies in this case are with the Chiong family who lost two daughters, or with the Larrañagas, who were bewildered by one obstacle after another and put their hope in a criminal justice system that failed them repeatedly, the film makes for very compelling viewing. The end of the film shows the media frenzy that followed when the Larrañagas, failed by local courts, clung to Paco’s dual Spanish-Filipino citizenship as a lifesaver, with Spain, and even the United Nations, taking up Larrañaga’s cause.
Today, the result is dissatisfaction on both sides: for the Chiongs, that the convicts were relieved of their life sentences, and that Paco, using his “influence” to garner international support, now enjoys an easy life in a Spanish prison; and for the Larrañagas, seemingly helpless even with the aid of the highest international courts. Seven men are still in jail for crimes that many say were not proven conclusively that they had committed.
And then there is “Jacqueline Comes Home,” an attempt to tell the Chiongs’ story while claiming it is only “loosely inspired” by true events. One review described it as “comically bad.” More than that, it’s been lambasted for playing fast and loose with the facts, and its overreliance on artistic license to get away with an irresponsibly told story about a divisive case.
Netizens appear to be supporting “Give Up Tomorrow” instead; it has gone viral and spawned online petitions to #FreePaco. However, in the end, we are confronted with the fact that the documentary was screened six years ago, and, still, Larrañaga and the others remain in jail, with no legal hope for reconsideration.
We find that we live in the age of the strongman, in an era of extrajudicial killings and people shot or found dead in streets and poor families seeking justice, crying out against a government that claims it has more important things to do. “Kafkaesque” describes not just Larrañaga’s tragedy, but also the Philippines we live in. It is a circus. It is nightmarish, bizarre and illogical. And Larrañaga is not its only victim.
Is there any hope that “Give Up Tomorrow” could be a local “Serial” and, given the power of social media in the Duterte age, lead to a retrial? Just once, could a convict be given a fair opportunity to argue his case before unbiased ears? If the last two years of this administration are any indication, that is far from happening. “Due process” is not one of its watchwords.
In the meantime, we swallow this as we have swallowed thousands of outrages. We can only be content with supporting one film and condemning another.
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