POSTSCRIPT / February 7, 1999 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Politicians can now wash their hands of Leo’s blood

THE feeding frenzy is over, we hope. The thirst for blood has been quenched, we hope.

The politicians can now wash their bloody hands to count the points they have earned for talking tough and strutting like the nemesis of Crime.

Leo Echegaray is dead. After his burial, after we’ve chewed the latest trivia from the death chamber—but long before the next execution of another convict—we hope the nation can simmer down to a more dispassionate debate on the wisdom of capital punishment.

The debate will not be about Echegaray nor about the next convict waiting on Death Row, but about crime and punishment, particularly the death sentence.

* * *

FOR really heinous crimes, those sometimes described as crimes crying to heaven for vengeance, the death penalty may be justified as an appropriate response by a community reeling from the onslaught of crime.

But—and this is very important—the death penalty must be resorted to only if we have assurance that it could be administered with fairness and justice. Otherwise, we must not trifle with human lives.

It is not enough that we have courts and judges. We must also have justice.

Every now and then, a litigant loses a case, or even loses his life, by a conspiracy of such factors as the poor quality of his defense, the defects of the justice system, and—as in high-profile cases—the hysteria at the moment.

A weak or corrupt judge, like Pilate throwing Christ to the mob crying for blood, may just gloss over his better judgment and succumb to outside pressure.

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THERE is pressure on a policeman to produce a suspect, solve the case and earn media attention. After him, there is also the pressure on prosecutors to win a conviction and burnish their reputation.

Such pressure may push some of them, at that early and crucial stage of the process, to resort to illegal and unfair practices, especially if the probability of getting away with it is high.

In these initial steps in the long investigative process, the poor and the unlettered are immediately at a disadvantage. The fate of some suspects is sometimes sealed at that basic stage.

A defendant’s ability to retain a good (and expensive) legal counsel, to finance extra-legal operations (lakaran), and his lawyer’s connection with the right people can spell the difference between acquittal and conviction, or between a light and a maximum penalty in case of conviction.

We’re not saying anything new when we say that the justice system has been corrupted by money and influence. And this is the same system that sends innocent men to the gallows….

* * *

ANOTHER threat to justice is the politician with whom the police, prosecutors and judges lead symbiotic lives.

We have just witnessed how herds of politicians stampeded in the direction of public opinion. They normally go where the money is, but when there’s nothing to earn, they lean toward where the wind blows, never mind what their conscience tells them.

Politicians trip over each other to grab credit for blocking all options for a review of a death sentence and nailing a man to death. Why? They want publicity and to project an image of being uncompromising against crime.

Even clemency has become a political wand that a president waves with relish. On the mistaken belief that he has to look and sound tough on criminals, President Estrada even had to insult Pope John Paul II and others who had wanted to plead for a death convict.

Maybe the Pontiff has to join the Iglesia ni Cristo first before he presumes to plead with President Estrada.

* * *

THE system is supposed to spot and remedy such lapses and aberrations, but if the entire system is shot through with holes, where do we run to for justice?

Having given up on the Philippine justice system, some aggrieved parties had sued in United States courts and won convictions.

Examples are the 10,000 or so victims of Marcosian martial rule. Had they sued in the Philippines and not in a US court, do you think they would get to first base? No way!

In fact, when former first lady Imelda Marcos was convicted on a corruption charge, she was plucked out of a possible stay in jail by some legal maneuvers that only the fabulously rich and eminently connected could afford to do. No less than Supreme Court justices swooped down from heaven to rescue Superma’am.

The question is certainly not fair to Gov. Bongbong Marcos, but some friends insist on asking what would have happened if Leo Echegaray were Bongbong. Don’t answer that one.

* * *

REMEMBER Archimedes Trajano? He was the Mapua student who made the mistake of asking Imee Marcos some pointed questions when the then chairman of the Kabataang Barangay was addressing a youth gathering at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila in 1977.

The student had the temerity to tell the KB national chairman: “There are others far more qualified to assume your post and only if you were not a presidential daughter, you would not have been in that position.”

Tarajano—remember him—was snatched by Imee’s security men, was missing for a week and later was found dead with his eyes scooped out, his intestines drawn out and his skull smashed.

If the Trajano case against Imee were filed in the Philippines, what would have happened? But it was filed with other torture cases in the Hawaii District Court and, in 1989, US Judge Manuel Real found Imee liable for the student’s brutal death and ordered her to pay the student’s heirs $5 million.

Instead of the Visiting Forces Agreement, don’t you think President Estrada should sign a Visiting Judges Agreement with the US? That way, some American judges could come here regularly to receive and try cases.

* * *

IF we go by statistics, it would be difficult to assess if the reimposition of the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. It would take time to gather enough data to serve as basis for analysis and planning.

It is even more difficult to measure the impact of the Echegaray execution last Friday on the commission of heinous crimes. There is no basis for saying this early that his death by lethal injection would strike fear into the hearts of criminals, rapists in particular.

A would-be rapist is not likely to shrink back from his dark intentions just because he heard of Echegaray’s case. The internal process that leads to the outward act is much more complicated than watching television or reading newspapers.

The larger picture of environment must be addressed. We have now in this country a moral morass, which is conditioning us to think lightly of violating the law. The deterioration of the moral fabric is alarming.

The tragedy is that we don’t see much organized and sustained effort to arrest this moral decline.

While we see officials led by a tough-taking President flailing at crime in general, we don’t see them as leading from a moral high ground. The government is concentrating on law enforcement, but not doing much in other areas to restore morality in government and elsewhere.

With this basic handicap, we think the Estrada administration should recognize its shortcomings and seek out the Church’s help, instead of quarreling with it.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT: Stockholders of San Miguel Corp. must be applauding SMB chairman Danding Cojuangco. The company is issuing a special one-time cash dividend of 40 centavos per share. This is a departure from the usual 20-centavo quarterly dividends. San Miguel is one of the most liquid companies in the country today. After getting top dollar for its stake in Nestle Philippines and Coca-Cola Beverages of Europe, the company’s coffers are bulging with more than P50 billion cash. The Boss is making good his promise to share with stockholders the fruits of profitable operations.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 7, 1999)

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