Wrong solution

FRANTIC CALLS for the re-imposition of the death penalty fill the front pages and the broadcast lanes every time gruesome crimes—like the recent car thefts and the Edsa bomb carnage—happen. Like many citizens, I am appalled by the grisly violence in our midst, but I firmly believe the death penalty is the wrong solution.

No death under Cory Charter. Our Constitution (Sec. 19, Art. III) prohibits the imposition of the death penalty “unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress shall provide for it.” Due to the rise of criminality in the early 1990s, Congress “provided for it” by enacting Republic Act 7659, the Death Penalty Law, which took effect on December 31, 1993.

As a member then of the Supreme Court, I vehemently opposed the death penalty on constitutional, philosophical and pragmatic grounds. In enacting RA 7659, Congress—I opined—failed to show “compelling reasons” and to differentiate “heinous” crimes from ordinary ones, as required by the Constitution. However, the majority of the justices outvoted me (and a few other dissenters), and imposed death in well more than a thousand cases starting with People v. Echegaray (June 25, 1996 and Feb. 7, 1997).

I chronicled my battle against the death penalty in several opinions and books. I argued that our justice system (including the police, the prosecutors and the courts) is flawed. The penalty is especially prejudicial to the poor and the disadvantaged who find legal proceedings too expensive, beguiling, and intimidating. Once the death penalty is executed, errors in its imposition could no longer be corrected.

Take the case of Echegaray, the first convict to be lethally injected. He was charged with rape, which, among others, was qualified as “heinous” by RA 7659 if the offender is the father of the victim. Absent the father-daughter relationship, rape was punishable only with life imprisonment, not death.

The charge sheet or “Information” alleged that Echegaray was the “father” of Rodessa, the victim. However, this father-daughter relationship was not proven. What was proven, to quote the Supreme Court, was that Echegaray was the “confirmed lover (not husband) of Rodessa’s mother.”

Wrongful execution. On June 25, 1996, the Court sentenced Echegaray to death. It reasoned, “Even if he were not a father, stepfather or grandfather of Rodessa, this disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss where perpetrators of heinous crimes ought to be, as mandated by law. Considering that the accused-appellant is a confirmed lover of Rodessa’s mother, he falls squarely within the afore-quoted portion of the Death Penalty Law under the term ‘common law spouse of the parent of the victim.’”

With due respect, this reasoning is faulty. A “confirmed lover” of the victim’s mother is not the “father” of the victim; Rodessa’s father was the separated husband of her mother. Further, the Court in many later cases (like People v. Perez, Sept. 24, 1998, People v. Dimapilis, Dec. 17, 1998 and People v. Gallo, Sept. 29, 1999) consistently ruled that the exact relationship between the accused and the victim must be alleged in the information; otherwise, the proper penalty would be reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment.

In all these latter cases, the death penalty imposed by the Supreme Court’s final judgments has not been carried out yet. So, despite the legal finality of the decisions, the accused were spared the capital penalty; and were instead belatedly imposed life imprisonment because of the unproven filial relations between the accused and the victim.

In Echegaray’s case, however, the wrong sentence of death could no longer be recalled, because he had been lethally injected and could no longer be brought back to life. Indeed, errors in the imposition of the capital penalty are irreversible once an accused is executed.

The errors of the lower courts were even more aplenty and alarming. They became virtual factories of death as they churned out thousands of death sentences every year. Upon careful review, the Supreme Court affirmed less than one-third of the death sentences. Many convicts were acquitted and many more given lighter sentences.

Death to death. Apart from Echegaray who was executed on Feb. 5, 1999, six others had been lethally injected: Eduardo Agbayani for rape, on June 25, 1999; Dante Piandong, Jesus Morallos and Archie Bulan for robbery with homicide on July 8, 1999; Pablito Andan for rape with homicide on Oct. 26, 1999, and Alex Bartolome for rape on Jan. 4, 2000. Yet, criminality remained unabated.

Since then and despite the multitudes on death row, no one else was judicially killed, because on March 24, 2000, President Joseph Estrada declared a “moratorium” on executions to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo extended this moratorium. On April 15, 2006, she commuted to life imprisonment the capital penalty imposed on all death row inmates, which at that time ballooned to a staggering 1,230! Finally, on June 24, 2006, Republic Act 9346 abolished the death penalty.

Had the two presidents not declared the moratorium, had President Arroyo not commuted en masse the death penalty on 1,230 death row inmates, and had RA 9346 not repealed the death penalty, the Philippines would now have the bloodiest record of legal murders in the world.

The solution to criminality is the speedy investigation, prosecution and conviction of the offender, not death. I will write on this at another time.

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