Killed by mistake?
On September 7, 1994, a 38 year-old housepainter by the name of Leo Echegaray was convicted of the crime of rape and sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, death. He was the first Filipino in 23 years to be meted out that sentence after its reinstatement through Republic Act No. 7659 on December 13, 1993.
Almost five years later, on February 9, 1999, the sentence was finally carried out. A series of drugs were injected into his bloodstream, resulting in unconsciousness, paralysis, and finally, death. He died at exactly 3:00 PM, the customary time of executions here in the Philippines, the hour that Jesus Christ also died on the cross.
His last words were:
Sambayanang Pilipino, patawarin ako sa kasalanang ipinaratang ninyo sa akin. Pilipino, pinatay ng kapwa Pilipino.
Filipino people, forgive me for the crime you have accused me of committing. Filipino, killed by fellow Filipinos.
Despite opposition by certain sectors to the death penalty, Echegaray's execution through lethal injection was hailed as a triumph of law and order over criminality (see then President Joseph Estrada's statement on the execution here).
Fast forward seven years.
For a supposed error of sorts committed by the Supreme Court during the automatic review of Leo Echegaray's conviction, the State, through the government, is being called upon to compensate his kin for "wrongful death" (see this article on INQ7.net).
The crux of the purported "mistake", is the application of the alternative circumstance of relationship, which was considered aggravating in this instance. The rape victim was the then ten year-old daughter of Echegaray's common-law-wife. She was not Echegaray's biological nor adoptive daughter, but the Court ruled this circumstance as aggravating, leading to the imposition of the penalty of death. If it wasn't considered as such, the penalty to be imposed would have been reclusio perpetua (read the decision of the Supreme Court here).
Now, because of the alleged "wrongful death", Senator Aquilino Pimentel is supporting the payment of a 5-10 million peso compensation package to Echegaray's family. Even Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales seems to agree.
If this indeed happens, this has got to be probably one of the weirdest acts of state that I have ever heard of.
Without going to the pros and cons of the death penalty, this recent development is a prime example of how weak-willed the government is, as well as its wishy-washy attitude towards the ever sensitive and controversial issue of capital punishment.
The fact is, Echegaray was given his day in court, and his conviction was affirmed after being reviewed by the Supreme Court. As far as the law is concerned, there is no "mistake" to speak of. He was sentenced to die for raping a ten year-old girl, the daughter of his lover. Maybe the lawyers who defended Echegaray could be to blame for not being able to convince the Court of the alleged lack of parental ascendancy over the convict and the victim. Maybe the Regional Trial Court who imposed the sentence and the even Supreme Court who reviewed the case could have misappreciated the facts. Its definitely not impossible. We are only human, after all.
This would not be the first time the Supreme Court would be accused of botching a decision. A lot of decisions of the Supreme Court have met with criticism in recent years, most notable of which was its affirmation of the ascent into the Presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, when former President Joseph Estrada was swept out of Malacañang through a popular revolt in 2001.
Which leads us to the question: who do we turn to when the highest court in the land is "wrong"? Precisely my point. Right or wrong, the buck stops with the Supreme Court. And who are we to say that their appreciation of the law is "wrong"? They are the authority when it comes to interpreting the law. Our Constitution has made sure of that.
I'm not really sure what to make of this myself. Whether we agree or not, we should respect the decisions of the Supreme Court. What other choice do we have? The Supreme Court is not within the disciplining power of any other body in the government. There's always impeachment, but it doesn't really seem like a responsive nor appropriate remedy when all we're talking about is a mistake in the appreciation of the facts of a case.
Maybe that's something for those advocating charter change to consider. The present framework of government as it now stands doesn't really address the issue.
As for Echegaray, let us let sleeping dogs lie. He was a convicted criminal after all, and while he may not have deserved to die, he certainly deserved to be punished for his crimes.
If anything else, his death should serve as a reminder that crime doesn't pay. Our institutions may be flawed, but that doesn't change the bottomline. To question his execution seven years after the fact doesn't really do anyone any good, and neither does it send a good message to criminal elements. All it does is reinforce the belief that we have a government which lacks the political will to execute its own laws.
If the death penalty truly is a needless and cruel form of punishment, then the legislature should concentrate on repealing the death penalty law instead of second guessing ourselves for executing criminals sentenced to death after undergoing due process. We can't bring them back. But we can prevent others from suffering the same fate, is that is indeed what needs to be done.
Lex Talionis - On enforcing the death penalty