Justice for Whom?

The 17th Congress have made the reimposition of capital punishment one of their main priorities, at a time when poverty is rife and there already being a de-facto death penalty in place.

The House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez even made a dire warning to lawmakers, threatening to remove their leadership responsibilities if they dare vote against House Bill Number 4727. Reinstating the death penalty was one of President Duterte’s campaign promises, saying that for him the punishment is not a deterrent but rather as “retribution” for criminal activities.

The tough-talking former mayor of Davao also believes that the death penalty serves as a deterrent for heinous crimes, despite continuous studies concluding that states without a death penalty have lower murder rates than those that have it. The President’s allies in Congress have also justified its’ return by stating it is in response to the rise of serious crimes in the country, which contradicts the claim of another Duterte ally – Police chief Ronald dela Rosa – that there has been a “historic reduction in the crime rate” since the incumbent took office.

Nonetheless, the main argument for the return of the death penalty seems to be to promote justice. The question is, justice for whom?

If history was to serve as judge, the death penalty promulgates a one-sided justice system where one’s social status determines their fate. The Philippine experience of capital punishment has only seen poor criminals, some sentenced under dubious circumstances, face the electric chair or lethal injection – those coming from affluent backgrounds had the privilege of having their sentences commuted.

The Vizconde Massacre

Take for example the infamous Vizconde Massacre in 1991. Two teenage girls and their mother were found brutally murdered inside their home in Paranaque City, with the older daughter also found to have been raped. The case remained unsolved for four years, until an eyewitness testimony in 1995 implicated members of wealthy scions to the brutality.

Hubert Webb under police custody.

The prime suspect was Hubert Webb, son of legendary professional basketball player and former Philippine Senator Freddie Webb. According to the testimony of Jessica Alfaro, the younger Webb along with several of his peers were under the influence of illegal narcotics when he had the urge to rape Carmela Vizconde, an acquaintance to him. Hubert Webb asked Alfaro to accompany him and his friends to the Vizconde house, since the mother would only allow female guests inside the house at night. Upon gaining entry into their abode, Webb and his accomplices stabbed to death with a kitchen knife Estrellita, the mother, and Jennifer, the younger sister. Then they gang-raped Carmela, finishing off by stabbing her to death as well.

Jennifer Vizconde was only seven years old at the time of her murder.

Despite that comprehensive testimony, the suspects still eluded the death penalty. Alfaro’s account of the crime was corroborated by two other witnesses who were near the scene of the crime, but Hubert Webb and his associates were only sentenced to life imprisonment in a sluggish trial that finally finished in 2000, nearly a decade since the crimes took place. The accused were spared the death penalty despite rape and murder being crimes which qualified for it, the severity of the crimes also made it inexcusable not to mete out capital punishment.

Opposite reactions: A visibly defeated Lauro Vizconde erupts upon hearing of Hubert Webb’s acquittal. On the right photo, the latter weeps with joy for his newfound freedom.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court ruled to have Hubert Webb and his accomplices acquitted in 2010. The DNA evidence gathered at the scene of the crime was discovered to have been lost by the investigation team, while Alfaro was ruled as an unreliable witness. Webb now lives a normal life, married to a woman he met while in prison. Lauro Vizconde, the patriarch of the family who was abroad on a business trip during the murders, died in 2016 without finding justice for the cold-blooded massacre of his family.

The Case of Fernando Galera

Contrast the fate of Hubert Webb to that of Fernando Galera, a fish vendor who was sentenced to death in 1994 for rape and robbery. The accuser was a housewife named Julia Vergonia, who claimed to have awoken during the early hours of January 1994 with a man – whom she claims to be Galera – on top of her, raping her while holding a machete. The story goes that after the rapist had finished with her, he stole cash and an expensive watch from the victim’s room as well.

Vergonia claims to have identified Galera since there was an illumination from the living room lights that made it possible to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator’s visage. She also declared in her sworn statement that the day after the incident, she saw Galera again outside her house selling fish but did not immediately report to the authorities because she did not want her brothers-in-law to harm the suspect. The story gets weirder when the accuser said that she saw Galera a third time the following day, but again refused to report to the authorities for the same reason. Vergonia only had the impetus to approach the law when she chanced upon Galera a fourth time, when the suspect was apprehended by local police.

Anti-death penalty advocates troop protest the death penalty verdict of Fernando Galera.

At the time of the trial, Vergonia’s testimony became inconsistent. First she told the court that there was only one lightbulb in the living room, after the defense team questioned if that sole bulb would be enough to illuminate her bedroom she immediately changed her statement to say there were two lightbulbs in the living room. Then, her earlier claim of failing to tell her brothers-in-law immediately of the incident also changed – she then claimed that she had informed them of the crime, but she nor those relatives failed to make a formal complaint to the authorities.

The accusations against Galera became even more doubtful when the investigation team found no seminal evidence on Vergonia, there also were no signs of injury to the victim’s vaginal area. The inconsistencies in the victim’s statements and the absence of any evidence of a rape having took place should have been enough to acquit Galera of the crime. Despite that, Fernando Galera was found guilty on the 19th of April 1994 and was sentenced to death.

The Bias of the Court System

The only sin of Fernando Galera is that he was born a poor man, a lowly fisherman with no kin or contacts in high places. Despite the weakness of the evidence against him, he was sentenced to capital punishment. On the other hand, despite the evidence pinning a rape and multiple murder to Hubert Webb he was only sentenced to life imprisonment and was also acquitted of his crimes later on.

The argument against the death penalty is in the unreliability of the justice system. Fundamentally, it relies on the strength of the case of the lawyers – those who are skilled enough to make a strong case usually practice privately, pricing themselves out of working class clients. Secondly, the web of individuals who make or break court cases include lawyers, judges and police officers who are all humans – they are susceptible to the allure of bribes. This effectively means that in the court system, the wealthy and influential have the upper hand over the average Juan.

Now imagine giving that flawed legal system the power to sanction the state to take the life of another? That is a terrifying prospect, even more so if you do not count among the elites.

Abolishing and Reinstating

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to abolish the death penalty. In 1987, the post-Martial Law era administration of President Corazon Aquino got rid of capital punishment as a way of recognizing human rights. The succeeding government of Fidel Ramos reinstated the death penalty in 1993, then in 2006 the death penalty was abolished again under President Gloria Arroyo.

This makes the Philippines the only country in the world to abolish the death penalty, then reinstate it and then abolish it again.

The Present Day Debate

President Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a hardline stance against crime, part of this was the reinstatement of the death penalty. The bill to reintroduce it is supported by the House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who assured the public it was not anti-poor to do so.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is one of the strongest supporters of the death penalty.

With that assurance came his announcement recently that the death penalty bill being debated in Congress at present will not cover the crime of plunder, that is the act of a public official siphoning taxpayer funds for their own gain. By exempting corrupt politicians from capital punishment, the House Speaker loses his credibility of claiming that the death penalty is fair for all. Why should government officials be spared from the fate they want to impose on the public?

Justice for Whom?

Some statistics to think about when talking about the death penalty: upon review of past capital punishment verdicts, 53% were reduced to reclusion perpetua and a further 18% were outright acquitted. That means 71% of death penalty verdicts were due to judicial error, more than half were wrongfully meted out with capital punishment.

An alliance of lawyers known as the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) also gathered data evidence based on death penalty rulings in the 2000’s. They found out that 73% of the 1,121 inmates on death row before 2006 were on a salary of less than Php10,000/month, this placed them in the lower-income bracket.

The vast majority of death penalty sentences are erroneously given, the vast majority of death row inmates were on low-income salaries. This trend is best explained by the fact that low-wage earners do not have the means to afford formidable defense lawyers, which means they mount a weak defense in court and are sitting ducks for the death penalty verdict.

This presents an unfair system skewed against the poor, while unfairly favouring the rich. One of the key tenets in the 1987 Constitution is the virtue of equal justice, the death penalty does not embody that ideal at all.

So when proponents of this draconian method cite “justice” as a reason to reinstate the death penalty, one has to ask: justice for whom, exactly?