Waiting to Go

Three more die, 1,000 more await execution in the deadly lottery resulting from the Philippines' hapless war on crime. After becoming the first country in Asia to abolish the death penalty, the Philippines became one of the few anywhere to bring it back. But so far, many wonder whether Manila has the judicial maturity to manage life and death decisions. An inside look at the depressing Death Row

By Ron Gluckman /Manila

ON JULY 8, JOSEPHA MORALLOS WATCHED HER HUSBAND DIE. He was strapped to a black gurney, his arms stretched out on padded slats, as if bound to a cross. "Have courage for the sake of our children," said Jesus Morallos. His voice, picked up by a dangling microphone, sounded metallic as it crackled through the speakers in the viewing gallery. Seated on a white, plastic chair, Josepha, mother of three, watched her husband's life flicker away as a cocktail of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride coursed through his veins. Jesus's eyes fluttered shut for the last time. The curtains closed.

And so, at 3:39 p.m., Jesus Morallos, 32, became the fourth person to be executed in the Philippines this year. Two other convicts also dieddeath1a.jpg (11845 bytes) at in an outbuilding at New Bilibid Prison that day. Dante Piandiong, 27, was terminated 58 minutes earlier. Fifty-eight minutes after Jesus, Archie Bulan, 24, died in the same corrugated metal shack. Outside the prison there were prayers and cheers. A hundred or so death-penalty opponents, led by religious leaders, joined hands with relatives of the doomed and prayed for executions to stop. Others prayed, too. Twenty men and women twirled rosaries, eyes shut, hands clasped to heaven, beseeching the merciful Lord to please, dear God, let the court-sanctioned killings continue. No one knows if the Lord listened, but in the space of less than three hours Manila had executed more convicts than it has in nearly a quarter century.

After watching her husband die, 35-year-old Josepha staggered down the red steps of the Lethal Injection Center, crying hysterically as she grappled with her new status as the nation's latest and - for 58 minutes anyway - most celebrated widow. Her misery soon will be forgotten, probably even before other convicts head to the death chamber, maybe later this month. But the repercussions will continue to reverberate through the devoutly Catholic nation that was the first in Asia to abolish the death penalty in 1987, but one of the few countries anywhere to bring it back, six years later. President after president has advocated the ultimate penalty. Yet despite widespread public support, death sentences have proven far easier to decree than to execute. As a result, the Philippines has a Death Row population that, among democratic nations, is second only to that of the United States.

Far more was at stake last week than the lives of three men convicted of robbing a jeepney in 1994 and killing a passenger who happened to be an off-duty police officer. The case ignited protests from human-rights groups, in the Philippines and abroad, who charge that the trio - protesting their innocence to the end - were tortured into making confessions, and were improperly tried and represented. Even as Josepha retrieved her husband's body, religious leaders were attacking the punishment as "cheapening the value of human life" and "fomenting the spirit of vengeance and hatred."

Questions about other cases have prompted a small but growing number of congressmen to press for an immediate review of death-penalty laws; they worry about inadequate checks and balances in the judicial system. A day before the triple executions, the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty for a deaf-mute convicted of rape. During his trial, the judge had overlooked the fact that the man could neither hear nor speak. The hubbub has made the president pause. Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who built careers in acting and politics by acting tough on crime, has wavered each time a man is due to die. Since the first execution in February, he has granted seven reprieves.

WHILE SOCIETY AT LARGE CANNOT achieve a consensus on the ultimate penalty, there is one place where people are unanimously against capital punishment - a big white building surrounded by fencing a few hundred meters from the death chamber. This is Death Row, where, depending on who you ask, between 897 and 1,069 inmates await their fate.

death12.jpg (23211 bytes)New Bilibid seems more like a barangay in the Philippines than a prison. In the sprawling prison grounds, vendors sell fruit, produce, eggs and household plastic ware. Burgers sizzle at Golden Hut Hamburger, while Cokes are racked at ramshackle stands beside a dozen rough-hewn pool tables, all handmade by inmates. Soaring voices sing the psalms at no less than 13 churches in the Maximum Security compound alone. They find no shortage of converts. Many convicts credit the supplemental church rations rather than newfound spiritual zeal for the high conversion rate. Hawkers circulate with fake Rayban sunglasses. Guards, sporting the "Cool Hand Luke" look, are customers. Basketballs bounce on prison courts as families munch pansit at adjoining picnic grounds. Benches and tables are painted in proud swirls. Huge murals on the sides of buildings resemble those in every Filipino town, extolling the local leadership, in this case "mayors" and gang bosses who run the various cellblocks. Prison craftsmen offer inventive wares: gaudy Last Supper paintings, wooden cigarette boxes, boats in bottles and remarkable animal figurines made from melted plastic cups.

There are vegetable gardens, chicken coops, ducks and geese wandering the dirt prison yard. Mothers, wives, girlfriends and children have free rein on visiting days. Except in the dark hole known as Building One - Death Row.

The place reeks of gas burners, sewage, sweat and fear. "I could not ignore the darkness and the stench," one inmate wrote in his diary. "You see, being in Death Row is like being inside a bottle painted black. But you learn to live with it, to search for some light. Otherwise, you will lose your soul." Rueben Montilla, 26, spent three years on death row for a marijuana conviction that was later reduced to life in prison. In his yellow flip-flops and shorts, Montilla looks more like a kid headed to the beach, instead of nowhere, ever again.  "Being closed off," he says, "is the worst thing."

While the rest of the maximum-security inmates roam the prison's inner sanctum, shooting pool, playing cards, buying and selling what they can, Death Row is locked down and isolated. Its three-meter-wide concrete veranda is enclosed by chicken wire. There is just enough room to stand among the laundry. Hundreds of men mill about, smoking cigarettes and queuing for water, a precious commodity. Others pass time on the second floor, leaning through the window grates. They can leave only to attend hearings, meet with attorneys and, eventually, die. "We all sit in our cells," says one inmate, "and wait the long wait."

death4.jpg (16617 bytes)When Rito Guinda was sentenced, he couldn't stop thinking about death. He couldn't eat. He couldn't sleep. "But you change," he says. "There is nothing you can do but wait for your judgment day. On Death Row there is no other way. You learn to accept it and get by. After a while you just become resigned, even if you are innocent." Guinda is one of the lucky ones; his drug conviction was commuted to life.

There is no official Death Row for women, but 18 female convicts are waiting to die. They are incarcerated at a facility in Mandaluyong, a Manila suburb, where they cut each other's hair, work on their makeup and stitch together placemats. Death Row is just another room in what looks like an old high school. Inmates lounge around in pajamas on tiny cots. With its bunk beds and posters of film and basketball stars, the place looks like a sorority sleep-over. The women are mostly young. Soon, some may die. "She talks of it all the time," says attorney Rachel Ruelo, superintendent of the Women's Correctional Institute. She is speaking of Josephina Esparas, who could make history next month as the first woman in the Philippines to be executed. "She says: 'Mom, it's near.' She says that all the time," confides Ruelo. "She cooks, she makes rosaries. But death is wearing on her. She's sick a lot."

IN THE PHILIPPINES, inmates pay for their crimes in many ways. Cash-rich convicts buy deluxe cells with fans, televisions, stereos. Editha Matignas, 56, president of the Families of Death Row Inmates, has gone into debt to pay for her son Jemreich's trial and to keep him comfortable inside. His cell cost $68, plus $325 for the remodeling. So far she has spent over $3,000 in legal fees, but would gladly shell out a promised $1,350 bonus to the lawyer who can get her only son acquitted.

Everything is available for a price. "Except," says one prisoner, "justice." Actually, that too. Despite the lofty goal of Act 7659 - to attack corruption in high places, target drug lords, murderers and kidnap gangs - enforcement is clearly aiming low. "These are all poor people in Death Row," says Maria Diokno, head of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which handles most last-ditch appeals for condemned men. Father Silvino "Jun" Borres, director of the Philippines Jesuit Prison Service, calls the Row a "home for the poor." A survey last year of 425 Death Row inmates showed that most earned less than $6 a day when they were arrested. Three-quarters of them were farmers, truckers, laborers and so on. Few can afford the $30 that attorneys charge to attend the death sentence hearings.

Diokno estimates that only 12%-15% of those charged in capital cases can afford private representation. "And most of these are drug cases or foreigners." Instead, Death Row inmates are served by a severely under-funded Public Attorney's Office (PAO), often with disastrous results. Condemned men say they are railroaded into prison with limited or no representation. FLAG cites cases in which public attorneys advise clients to plead guilty to obtain a lighter sentence, unaware that the charges carry a mandatory death sentence. PAO acknowledges that its 877 attorneys receive no special training on capital cases. It also notes that besides handling death-sentence cases, public defenders are involved in more than 350,000 civil and criminal cases each year, as well as millions of consultations, filings and mediation matters. They earn about $400 a month.

death5.jpg (31964 bytes)A 1980s crime wave prompted authorities to reinstate the death penalty as a deterrent to murder, kidnapping and treason. Few on Death Row possess such a resume. More than half are in for rape. Anxious to appear tough on crime, lawmakers recently added 46 capital offenses to the books - one of the broadest codes in the civilized world. Possession of 750g of marijuana can be a capital crime; one Death Row resident was convicted for growing seven plants. He fainted upon learning his sentence.

In the Philippines the lowest courts impose the death penalty. Critics say its reintroduction set off a "death rush" among justices eager to appease the public appetite for executions. Rumors circulate of a "Guillotine Club" of justices who hand down death sentences. Its so-called founder, Maximano Asuncion, sentenced the first inmate executed this year, Leo Echegaray. The judge died before the verdict was carried out.

Echegaray wasn't meant to be the first person executed in the Philippines since 1976. Fernando Galera was. Sentenced to die for rape and robbery in April 1994, Galera could have been killed as early as 1997, but at the last minute the Supreme Court ruled that he was innocent. His case is common enough. Capital cases receive automatic review. From 1995 to 1998, the Supreme Court ruled on 55 cases in which the death penalty had been decreed. There were six acquittals, 22 affirmed sentences, 22 reductions and five instances when the case was referred back to the lower court.

Galera is suing for restitution, but the court can't return the years he spent on Death Row. The judicial process was no consolation to Carlos Gorbilla, a corn vendor who last month leapt to his death minutes after being sentenced to death for rape. "This is not like a state with well-defined procedures, standards, safeguards," says attorney Diokno. "Here, it's all in the process of development." Even at the Department of Justice no one can agree on how many men are on Death Row, their status, or how the review process is handled.

Still, to date, far more men have received last-minute stays than lethal injection. The reprieves come from Estrada, who maintains unwavering support for the death penalty even as his daughter Jackie, 32, secretly visits prisons to work for its repeal. Nobody knows how Erap reaches his life-and-death decisions, but the results have become a hot topic internationally. On June 25, Estrada announced that rapist Eduardo Agbayani would die that day. Forty-five minutes later the president wavered. Erap had received an appeal from Bishop Teodoro Bacani. Estrada, at home at the time, called the injection room. He got a busy signal, then a fax tone. By the time an aide raced to the official palace hotline, Agbayani was dead.

A special panel was established to guide Estrada through the reprieve process. Secretary of Justice Serafin Cuevas sits on the three-member panel. Two days before last week's executions Cuevas was unsure where the review was headed. He has, however, attended all the executions so far, except for Agbayani's on June 25. That was Cuevas's birthday.

In April, Estrada granted a 60-day reprieve for DNA tests that could conclusively prove the innocence or guilt of three men sentenced for a rape they say they did not commit. The defense had been requesting the tests from the start, but the court refused to indulge them. For his part, Cuevas says the tests are unnecessary and, at $405 apiece, a costly precedent. The problem with the execution process, the justice secretary says, is that it takes too long. "There is no need to wait one year for the executions," Cuevas says, "when the judgment is already final." He adds: "But the president wants to be at peace with his conscience, he has said this most clearly. Besides, we worry that the Philippines will be branded as the death-penalty capital of the world."

Little chance of that. Most Asian nations sanction capital punishment. As in the Philippines, more people than not favor executing hardened criminals. Jessica Soto, national director of Amnesty International's Manila office, guesses that two-thirds of Filipinos back the death penalty. That is about the level of support gauged by an informal phone-in survey conducted recently by Adrian Sisson, who hosts a daily radio program, Broadcasters Bureau. "People really have the notion that it's a deterrent," says Sisson, who is also an attorney and death penalty opponent. "But you can go back in time. When they hung pickpockets in England, pickpockets worked the crowds."

Studies worldwide have failed to connect the death penalty with drops in crime. The U.S., with the developed world's largest Death Row population and highest execution rate, also claims some of the greatest rates of homicide, robbery and rape. Philippine records show that the number of robberies and murders fell sharply after peaking in the late 1980s; executions were not re-introduced until 1993. "It's an utter illusion that the problems of society can be solved by executions," says Father Borres, whose group has become a powerful advocate for prisoners and their families. His concern: "The time will come when executions become ordinary and nobody even notices them going on."

WHAT THE PUBLIC REALLY WANTS TO SEE is a big crime boss go to the chamber. "The chances of that," says FLAG attorney Jose Diokno, "are nil. We haven't even seen those kinds of conviction." New Bilibid Prison has had its share of celebrated inmates, including ex-congressman Romeo Jalosjos. Convicted of raping a minor, he became notorious for his prison lifestyle. The congressman built comfortable quarters in jail, hired bodyguards and constructed the Maximum Tennis Club. His treatment made news worldwide and prompted a clampdown and ban on interviews with Death Row inmates. On the tennis court, attended by guards in special white outfits, well-heeled prisoners continue to hit balls as they await parole. The congressman will not be visiting the Lethal Injection Chamber. He got life.

death1.jpg (31077 bytes)Who will be executed next? One candidate is Pablito Andan, convicted of rape and murder, whose initial date passed nearly a year ago. Or perhaps the first woman will go next. Esparas could be executed as early as Aug. 6. She was caught at the airport with a small quantity of shabu (methamphetamine). Some say her husband put the drug in her luggage. No one in the prison - guard or inmate - wants to see her die. "We're supposed to be in the business of rehabilitation," says superintendent Ruelo. "We can't rehabilitate a dead person."

Or perhaps the next to die will be Edwin Mendoza and brothers Jury and Ricardo Andal, whose 60-day reprieve for rape and murder runs out next month. Their lives hang in the balance as authorities tussle over $405 DNA tests that may never be done. "My husband was with me when the crime took place," says Modesta Correlos Andal, wife of Ricardo. His sentence is hers, too. The family sold their land to pay for Ricardo's defense. Her four children stay at home, while she spends her life outside the prison gates, waiting. "I'm hoping the truth will prevail," says Modesta. "I cannot think beyond that. If he is acquitted, then we will start a new life."

If not, then one day, soon after sunrise, they will come for Ricardo Andal and tell him to prepare to die. To enjoy one last meal, and pray with a priest, if he desires. Eight hours later, he will be led to a small, metal room, where as many as 33 people will watch through glass windows as lethal poisons are injected into his blood stream. Ricardo will breathe his last. Then the curtains will close, and Modesta will leave weeping. Another widow in the Philippines' ongoing war on crime.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is currently based in Bangkok, but roams widely around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek magazine (RIP), which ran this as a cover story on July 23, 1999. 

The story later received an award for Excellence in Reporting from the Society of Asian Publishers; the executions, following a re-examination of the process soon after the story ran, continued later that year.

In late June 2006, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed a law abolishing the death penalty, sparing the lives on an estimated 1200 people on Death Row.

That left an odd group of countries - Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Sudan and the United States - to account for 90 percent of the judicial executions in 2006, according to Amnesty International.  

The pictures are by Manila photographer Edwin Tuyay, and the pair also teamed up for another piece on the death penalty in the Philippines that was carried by MSNBC. Click here to see another story on the death penalty in the Philippines..

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