By: Criselda Yabes

It was still dark when, at 5:30 in the morning of February 5, 1999, Prisoner N94P-2347 was taken out of his cell. Four escort guards pushed a handcuffed Leo Echegaray through a scrum of photographers to get him out of the building. Light bulbs flashing, their lenses aimed at the lone tangerine shirt that marked the wearer as a convict being led to his execution.

His last view of the outside world would have been the neem trees of a garden by the entrance of a small inconspicuous building; once inside a holding room where he spent his few final hours with his wife, he had just the four dark walls around him. The walls and the floor had been padded with rubber to prevent the prisoner from attempting to crush his head against the concrete.

He would be executed by lethal injection, in another room at the end of the hallway where the clock ticked.

The death sentence of Leo Echegaray, a blue-collar worker from San Francisco del Monte in Quezon City, divided the public on the law of whether the penalty would set an example amid rising crime. His impending execution had built up a macabre media frenzy, the first of its kind within recent memory in the Philippines. When the drug trafficker Lim Seng had been shot by a firing squad under martial law in 1973, there had been no one to protest the execution, or the idea itself of capital punishment.

This time, massive street demonstrations built up to the date of the execution. Even pressure from abroad mounted, and nuns and priests protested by the gates of the death chamber on Echegaray’s last day on earth.

Just 38, Leo had been accused and convicted of raping his lover’s 10-year old daughter named Rodessa five years back, although there was speculation that he might have been innocent. It was not established when the crime had occurred and the role Echegaray played in the family. The lower courts had initially identified him as “stepfather” to the victim, who carried the same last name.

The Supreme Court later ruled that “even if he were not father, stepfather, or grandfather of Rodessa, his disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss perpetuators of heinous crimes ought to be as mandated by law.”

Echegaray was the “confirmed lover” of the victim’s mother, thus “he falls squarely within the afore-quoted portion of death penalty under the term ‘common-law spouse,’” it said.

Incidents such as this, mostly incestuous cases, had been a common occurrence in the slums of the capital, from where the previously faceless Echegaray emerged to national notoriety. The year he was executed, rape cases actually rose to 290 from 261 the previous year.

Echegaray’s case happened to be the first one filed and decided after Congress enacted the death penalty in late 1993, a measure that provoked harsh, divisive and emotional debates. The framers of the 1987 Constitution had themselves been divided over capital punishment and had left it to Congress to resolve the issue.

In February 1997, the high tribunal reaffirmed Echegaray’s death sentence, dismissing for lack of merit a motion for reconsideration submitted by the condemned man who had a new lawyer and had raised the issue of constitutionality. His lawyer had argued that the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 104 had failed to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The Supreme Court did not set any hearing for the case. Its decision had been written per curiam , withholding the identity of any of the 15 justices, among whom three held dissenting opinions.

On death row in the colonial-era Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa, on the outskirts of Manila, Echegaray’s life hung in the balance as the Supreme Court waited for Congress to make up its mind amid public pressure to abolish the death penalty.

This went on for more than a year, after the Supreme Court decision that was to make this a landmark case. (Under the law, the prescribed date of execution is one year after the final Supreme Court decision.)

Sayang!” had been Echegaray’s impulsive remark when he had heard that his execution was again going to be postponed from January to February after a series of delays. What a pity, he meant to say philosophically.

A quiet man with solitary tendencies, Echegaray was ready to meet his fate, said his spiritual mentor during his time in jail. Monsignor Roberto Olaguer, the prison’s popular chaplain, had spent many hours of private confession with the convict. More than a decade later, the priest would recall that it had been his ecclesiastical mission—so close had he become to the prisoner—to saving the soul of a dead man walking.

At 11:30 am, the prisoner had his last meal. Allowed to ask for anything he wanted to eat, he chose shrimps and chicken drumsticks.

On this day, he could have considered himself fortunate, in a way: the woman he loved was with him, a woman named Zeny whom he had married while he was in prison. His sister Tess was present as well. So was his friend the priest, who was holding back the intensity of his feelings and hoping against hope that a power failure of some kind would, by the grace of Providence, stop the execution.

His lawyer was allowed to see him. Atty. Theodore Te was a deliberate and tenacious man. This case, he would say, would break the stoicism and rationality that most lawyers acquire in the profession. It would drive him to tears. It would haunt him for years afterwards, as a historical event that brought into question a nation’s sense of justice.

He had had little time to know the prisoner; he did not have full access to him on death row. Just like the priest, he had also done what he could within his capacity as a defense lawyer to try to stop this day from happening.

Atty. Teddy Te, as he was called, saw the face of Leo behind the steel grills and thick plexiglass rectangular window of a bolted door. He wanted to touch the prisoner’s hand in a gesture of empathy, but could only poke his fingers through the small round holes of the glass.

“Leo was smiling and upbeat,” Teddy would later write in his electronic diary. The prisoner gave him an update of his blood pressure, which was fairly normal at 100 over 70. He had eaten to his satisfaction and his mood was calm.

“I still hope we don’t go through with this. I’m still smiling as you can see,” he told his lawyer.

This case had fallen on the lap of Teddy Te by chance. He was part of the high-profile Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which had encouraged the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers to follow in the footsteps of the formidable Jose W. Diokno.

FLAG had set up a task force against the law on capital punishment, lobbying for a repeal of Republic Act No. 7659—the Death Penalty—that Congress wanted to reinstate.

The genesis of Echegaray’s execution and six others (including three in one day) that were to follow him that year alone, sprang from a critical clause under Section 19 of the Article III, in which the drafters of the 1987 Constitution said that the death penalty shall not be imposed unless, “for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress hereafter provides for it.”

As it stood, death sentences were to be commuted to life imprisonment.

The committee that tackled the Bill of Rights in the constitutional commission had been polarized over this question, with some seeing the death penalty as offering no deterrence to crime, and others foreseeing a possible need for it in the future. With that, the commission gave the elected lawmakers of Congress broad leeway to justify “heinous crimes,” which could be along the definition of “organized murder” or “brutal murder of a rape victim.”

But Congress, according to Atty. Te in his written argument to the Supreme Court, did not specifically provide parameters as to what crimes could be punishable by death, in effect reinstating the previous list of crimes in the Penal Code prior to the 1987 Constitution. Congress, he said, had ignored this (either by chance or design) when it enacted the law on capital punishment.

On this point, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty in the Constitution had not been completely abolished.

The country’s crime rate had gone through swings, little helped by the systemic flaws of the police, the courts, and the lawmakers themselves. In the early 1990s, highly publicized cases of rape and murder hit the middle class in the guts; the victims were mostly young students who fit the profile of their kind.

The pendulum of fear went to the extreme and Echegaray’s case, said his lawyer, was the “ultimate trump card.” The supporters of capital punishment wanted to use Echegaray’s example to strike back against heinous crime.

When was the last time capital punishment served its purpose? At the start of martial law, within months of its imposition about 25 years back, an ethnic Chinese narcotics dealer was shot dead by musketry in a public execution constantly replayed on government television, justifying the regime’s claim of restoring order from chaos. Drug use had been rampant among children of the middle class.

But Leo Echegaray had nothing to do with the middle class. FLAG highlighted these figures: about two-thirds of 165 convicts sentenced to death by 1995 were poor.

Echegaray had worked as a waiter briefly and was making a living painting houses when he was put in jail on rape charges. The penalty, wrote Justice Artemio Panganiban, one of the few who dissented in the case, was “especially prejudicial to the poor and the disadvantaged who find legal proceedings too expensive, beguiling, and intimidating.”

“It is still possible that an innocent man would be held legally guilty and thereafter judicially executed,” Panganiban wrote in one of his books when he became Chief Justice, breaking confidentiality in revealing that he had been one of the dissenters.

“Judges can make wrongful evaluations. A perfectly innocent man could die due to plain human error…. Once carried out, the death sentence can no longer be reversed.”

Many death row inmates apparently were not even supposed to be there, according to Justice Panganiban. He alluded to judges who handed down quick verdicts and earned, among their peers, the frightening name of the “Guillotine Society.”

“They [the lower courts] became virtual factories of death as they churned out thousands of death sentences every year.” He said that if there had been an error in Echegaray’s relations with the victim, he could have otherwise received the sentence of life imprisonment.

The statistics were unsettling. FLAG pointed out that about 75 percent of death-row convictions were made in error by the lower courts, roughly translating into seven out of 10 cases that did not deserve the death sentence.

By 1999, the year of the executions, the Supreme Court had reviewed about one-third of the cases and affirmed them.

At about noon, all visitors were asked to leave. Leo Echegaray was now alone.

In the months that he knew the convict, Monsignor Olaguer would remember him with the fondness of a friend. He said that what might have constituted rape in the eyes of the law may not have entirely applied to the case of Echegaray. As a priest, he was sworn to secrecy, but he was very vocal and clear in his affection for the prisoner.

What was Leo guilty of, in his view? “I’d say, an act of lasciviousness,” the priest answered, and left it at that.

The prisoner had a complicated life with his former lover and the daughter he was accused of raping, identified by the courts as Rodessa (Baby by her nickname). The victim’s grandmother was alleged to have instigated the case to get back at Echegaray because of a “sinister motive” that was neither proven nor made explicit, according to court records.

When he was in his maximum-security cell, Echegaray dreamt about running away, said the priest, giving clues to the sort of conscience the prisoner could have harbored. “He had dreams of running to hide in a manhole and running again up a tree as he was being chased by a dog. It was all about running for his life. It may not necessarily be out of guilt, he may be trying to save himself. There was some decency in the man, you know,” said Monsignor Olaguer.

AT 2:45 pm., the prisoner left the holding room, escorted by six guards up the corridor, taking roughly 20 steps to the gurney on which he was to be strapped.

The red phone in an adjacent private room of the prison superintendent was on hand, in case a call from the President came through.

But there would be no last-minute pardon. “I’ve got to be firm. I have to send a message to these future rapists that we mean business,” said then- President Joseph Estrada.

The President had resisted pressures for an appeal, including one from the Pope himself. He was so firm in his stand that he had the hotline to the death chamber cut. “No one will change my mind,” he was quoted as saying by news reports.

The drama was heightened when the blue curtain was drawn open from the small public gallery separating it from the death chamber by a one-way mirror.

Leo Echegaray lay facing up, his arms outstretched as if he were about to be crucified. A black microphone hung above him, into which he would speak his last words.

In Tagalog, he said, “Forgive me, Filipino people, for what you accuse me of. A Filipino killed by a fellow Filipino.”

Much later, his lawyer Teddy Te would try to figure out what he meant. He was seated in the gallery, quiet and praying. The other witnesses keep looking at the clock. He prays harder, along with the priest.

“He never admitted to anything even at the point of death,” Te said later in an interview. “As far as I was concerned, innocence was never the issue. He  could have been guilty but I would have done the same thing as far as saving him from the death penalty was concerned.”

The phlebotomists were ready to inject the poison, three kinds of chemicals, through a drip hooked to syringes on the prisoner’s arms. They waited for a sign.

While Leo was speaking, they tried to figure from the volume of his voice when the tension in his body would be low enough. Nobody else in the chamber spoke. The phlebotomists communicated by sign language; when one of them touched the frame of his eyeglasses, the execution was to proceed.

It was so quiet one could hear only the droning of the air-conditioning, blowing air scented by a wild cherry freshener. The fluorescent light illuminated the stark drama of the scene.

From his view, strapped to the gurney, Leo Echegaray would have seen a crucifix below the air-conditioner and, next to it, a poster of Jesus Christ.

Monsignor Olaguer would later say that Leo had turned to the Bible. Leo had smuggled a ballpoint pen in the spine of the book, so he could write a few things on the empty spaces of the pages. One that stood out was a stick drawing that could be mistaken for a child’s art. Leo drew a bright sun above a tree and a house. There was a family—a father and a mother linking arms with their children.

But in the Bible, he would turn to the one page that he knew by heart, where Psalm 88 said: “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you. Hear my prayer; listen to my cry for help! So many troubles have fallen on me that I am close to death….”

Leo would leave a message to his wife that he would communicate with her in the afterlife through signs by numbers, said the priest. He would tell her if she was to re-marry the right man by the number 037—which, if inverted, reads “Leo.” (Some years later, Zeny the widow would die of health complications.)

Even Monsignor Olaguer would take this seriously. He said he would know Leo’s spirit was around when he came across the numbers that told the time of his death.

“When I used to say Mass at death row,” he recounted, “Leo would hold up the flashlight so I could read the Bible. And I’d tell the others, ‘Look at this guy, he’s about to die and yet he gives us the light.’”

AT 3 pm, Atty. Teddy Te stopped praying the rosary. He stared at Leo Echegaray for a very long time, watching the tightly shut eyes of a man who had died in pain. His lips had turned dark, and then his face, until all of him was purple.

In the hush of the room, the lawyer could hear only the steady crying of Leo’s wife and sister. The heart monitor showed a flat line. With a stethoscope, a female doctor, and then another, verified and confirmed the fact in a monotone: “The condemned man is dead.” It was 3.19p.m.

Postscript

By 2000, when then-President Estrada put the penalty on hold ostensibly to give honor to the Christian millennium, the death row population rose to 959. Estrada was soon driven out of power in a popular uprising. His successor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hemmed and hawed over the death penalty, commuting some sentences and giving reprieves to other convicts, uncertain of her stand.

In 2003, a bill was filed in Congress calling for its repeal; both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for it three years later.

On the eve of her visit to the Vatican in June 2006, President Arroyo—whose popularity had rapidly dwindled by then—signed Republic Act No. 9346 abolishing the death penalty, saying it was “the best pasalubong” or present she could give Pope Benedict XVI. The number of death row inmates then had already climbed to 1,230 by then.