The story reads as if it were ripped out of the pages of a suspense novel: As a tropical storm beats down on an island in the Philippines, two sisters leave work and never make it home. A 19-year-old culinary student, 300 miles away in Manila, is sentenced to death for their rape and murder, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. One of the most sensational trials in the country’s history ensues, exposing shocking corruption within the judicial system and long-simmering class and racial antipathies among the population. Two grieving mothers, entangled in a case that ends a nation’s use of capital punishment but fails to free an innocent man, dedicate more than a decade to executing or saving him.
But the tale is true. Against a backdrop of tabloid journalism, political intrigue and police misconduct, one mother becomes a media darling, the other waits for justice, a judge commits suicide — and the young man remains behind bars.
July 16, 1997 was a typical day for Give Up Tomorrow‘s subject, Paco. He attended culinary classes and then enjoyed the nightlife in Manila with his classmates. The next morning he was back at school for a day of exams. Three hundred miles away on the island of Cebu, parents Dionisio and Thelma Chiong were filing missing-persons reports. Their daughters Marijoy, 21, and Jacqueline, 23, had disappeared while waiting for their father to give them a ride home from work. The sisters would never be seen alive again. A battered, blindfolded and handcuffed body was soon discovered and identified as Marijoy. Jacqueline was never found.
Two months later, Paco’s sister, Mimi, received a call from her frightened brother saying that men in civilian clothes were arresting him for the rape and murder of both Chiong sisters. Six other boys in Cebu were also arrested. Although some of the boys’ names were on a list of juvenile delinquents for a previous altercation, there was no evidence linking them to the crime.
The co-accused at the trial. Credit: Alex Badayos.
The Chiong family is Chinese-Filipino, a group that has traditionally been an underclass. Paco is part of a prominent mestizo political clan that includes a former president. Beefy and tough, with a past of petty offenses, he neatly fit the role of privileged thug — and that is how he was cast by the frenzied media that swarmed his arrest and trial and cheered his eventual sentence to death by lethal injection.
Initially, Paco’s family, devout Catholics like many Filipinos, discussed his leaving the country. But they decided he would stay and clear his name. “We didn’t think it would go beyond preliminary investigation because we had…more than 35 witnesses…that said this boy was nowhere near Cebu on July 16,” said Mimi.
“Marty Syjuco and I had been friends for a few years when his older brother, who is Paco’s brother-in-law, asked for our help,” says director Michael Collins. “I had heard that Paco was accused of murdering two women, but until his death sentence everyone in the family was embarrassed to talk about it and was 100 percent sure that the Supreme Court of the Philippines would overturn the verdict.
“I retained some skepticism — until I read the letter from the 35 ‘unheard witnesses,’ which brought me to tears. Paco was my age, and over the years, while I had thrived, he had waited, unjustly condemned to execution, in a horrific gang-run prison.”
As the media began painting sensational portraits of the accused boys as drug addicts, Thelma Chiong, distraught mother of the victims, became a sensation herself. She claimed Paco had been dating and menacing Marijoy, an allegation he and his sister, Mimi, strenuously denied. Mimi began to suspect that the Chiongs were hiding something. She was right.
It turned out that Dionisio Chiong had worked at a trucking company owned by a notorious drug lord. At the time of his daughters’ disappearance, Dionisio had been scheduled to testify against the drug lord at a congressional hearing, but then he abruptly changed his mind. Could the murders have been ordered to ensure Dionisio’s silence? It was later discovered that the plainclothes police who arrested Paco were the drug kingpin’s bodyguards and that the police superintendent was a close friend.
The story became stranger still. While Paco and the six co-defendants languished in prison, Thelma Chiong was appointed vice president of the Crusade Against Violence. Her sister was secretary to newly elected President Joseph Estrada, who assigned four different agencies to tackle the investigation.
Police searched the Larrañagas’ property for a link to the crime. No such link was found, but eight months later prosecutors announced they had a star witness. A young prisoner named Davidson Rusia confessed that he was among the gang sought for raping and murdering the Chiong sisters. When the trial got underway, the prosecution questioned Davidson for days, while Paco’s counsel was given 30 minutes for cross-examination. Thelma called Davidson “a gift from God” and even brought the alleged double murderer birthday gifts in prison. Davidson’s cellmates would later claim he had been repeatedly tortured by police before confessing.
More bizarre turns were in store. The Philippines has no jury system, so Paco’s fate rested in the hands of Judge Martin Ocampo, who made the defense team’s work difficult, even jailing them for protesting his decision to throw out expert testimony questioning the identity of Marijoy Chiong’s body.
When Paco’s fellow students and instructors took the stand to verify his alibi, the judge cut short their testimony, declaring that there were “too many” witnesses. Paco was never allowed to take the stand.
Martin Ocampo, who was even seen sleeping through parts of the proceedings, took three months to write his decision. The verdict, reached two years after the crime, was devastating: Paco and his co-defendants were found guilty and received two consecutive life sentences. The decision was odd as well. Under Filipino law, a guilty verdict required the death penalty, so why did the judge rule otherwise? He admitted there was insufficient proof that the corpse was Marijoy Chiong’s. “You don’t know the pressure I’m under,” he told reporters who asked if he feared for his life. Five months later, he committed suicide.
The Chiong family was outraged that the young men had not received the death penalty, and their ally President Estrada asked the Department of Justice to change the sentence. The Larrañaga family appealed to the Supreme Court to protest the many violations of Paco’s constitutional rights.
Paco was now living in a dangerous and overcrowded prison run by armed gangs. The filmmakers managed to smuggle in a camera and tapes, which Paco buried in the yard. The filmmakers would carry the full tapes out with them after each visit. In Paco’s death row cell, the prisoner was doing his best to take each day at a time. “I always tell my co-inmates…if you want to give up, give up tomorrow,” he says in the film. Lawyers assured Paco’s family that his case was strong. On Feb. 3, 2004, Paco’s mother would hear the news of the appeal, like millions of others, on television. Her son was not only found guilty, but now was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
But in another twist, the court’s new verdict awakened widespread support for the accused young men. Student witnesses joined a Catholic priest to organize an event and Paco’s family sought new avenues for justice. Because his father was Spanish, Paco was also a Spanish citizen. The family appealed to Spain for help and Amnesty International led a nationwide campaign that generated huge momentum. In November 2004, activists delivered a petition with nearly 300,000 signatures to the embassy of the Philippines in Madrid.
The country’s Supreme Court, led by a chief justice related to Thelma Chiong, refused to budge. In a final effort, Paco’s lawyers submitted his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which called for his release. The Spanish government asked Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, who had replaced President Estrada following his removal on corruption charges, to grant Paco clemency. She vowed that Paco’s life would be saved and, astonishingly, abolished the nation’s death penalty in June 2006. The two countries agreed that Paco would be transferred to Spain to serve the remainder of his life sentence. Thelma tried — but failed — to prevent the transfer. Still convinced of Paco’s guilt, she says in Give Up Tomorrow that she will “kill him” if he comes home.
Paco and his family hoped that his transfer to Spain would begin his path to freedom. But the Spanish prison review board would only recommend Paco for parole if he would admit his guilt. “How can I assume something I didn’t do?” he asked. More than two years after his transfer to Spain and 15 years after his arrest, Paco remains in prison.
“I came to understand that we could prove Paco’s innocence over and over with the facts, but it would never be enough,” says Collins. “We needed not only to expose a deep and complex dynamic of corruption and injustice, but also to reveal the part of the Filipino culture that is human, decent and suffering.”
Give Up Tomorrow is an intimate family portrait and international cliffhanger that shines a light on a nation’s incomplete journey toward democracy. As Paco Larrañaga’s case illustrates, unless democracy’s hallmarks — elections and a free press — rest on the foundation of an impartial legal system and responsible journalism, injustice may follow. And no matter how nations rule or how people feel about execution, there is no debating its finality. When the Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006, Paco was one of 1,176 people waiting on death row.
“I know some will question my objectivity and intent because Paco is my brother’s brother-in-law,” says producer Marty Syjuco, “but that relationship gave me inside access and perspective. It also opened my eyes to a part of the Philippines that, as one of its beneficiaries, I had ignored. My family members are mestizos, a group that traditionally benefits from endemic corruption and cronyism.
“I had left the Philippines, but it lived inside me. And I knew I had to return. Paco Larrañaga is just one among many. There are thousands of Pacos around the world. We are hoping that this film will make not only Filipinos, but people of all nationalities, sit up, pay attention and act.”