OPINION: Presidents and capital punishment

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Mar 07 2017 12:26 AM

The execution of Lim Seng, 1973, from an Associated Press newsreel

Today, the House of Representatives will reach its moment of decision on reviving the death penalty. Up for plenary deliberation on Wednesday will be the death penalty bill, which restored capital punishment for violations of the anti-dangerous drugs law.

Last January 29 as part of our Inquirer Briefing, we focused on the three flavors of executions then being proposed, and the background of capital punishment in our country. The information I’m sharing with you as we survey past administrations, came from this page.

During the colonial period, the Spanish preferred the garotte, which broke your neck by means of a screw, for executions. This is how Gomburza were executed. Except, in cases of military court martial in which case firing squads were used: this is how Rizal and suspected Katipuneros were finished off.

Our First Republic debated the separation of Church and State but doesn’t seem to have considered capital punishment as a topic for serious discussion. 

The Americans used hanging as the means for execution for people like Macario Sakay. But by the 1920s, the electric chair had been introduced.

When the modern presidency was established in 1935, capital punishment though in existence for much longer, had been in the Penal Code since 1886. It was a given, as just as it was elsewhere in the world, that the state had the right to take lives for those convicted of heinous crimes.

The only president before 1986 who expressed misgivings about the death penalty was Manuel L. Quezon. 

In his autobiography, he wrote that the legend of the mother of Rizal climbing the stairs of Malacañan Palace on her knees, to beg for the life of her son, haunted him. He always commuted the death sentence before executions could take place.

An interesting point: every generation seems to have produced a hero who ended up executed or assassinated: Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Jose Abad Santos: all were condemned to death; while Ninoy Aquino had been condemned to death by musketry by the dictatorship then liquidated in an assassination. 

But to return to our story, while a president might have stayed the hand of the execution, he did not push for the abolition of the death penalty. In fact, even during the crimes covered by the death penalty increased. In 1941, as war clouds gathered, espionage became a capital crime.

 In 1957, subversion became a capital crime as part of a series of laws proposed by Ramon Magsaysay and enacted under Carlos P. Garcia, to toughen legislation against Communism.

During this period, from the end of World War II to Martial Law, the electric chair was the method of execution. Technically, the law provided for the electric chair to be replaced with the gas chamber, but this never seems to have happened.

In contrast to his predecessors who did not question the death penalty, but in many cases exercised executive clemency by commuting sentences and pardoning prisoners, Ferdinand E. Marcos was different.

After Martial Law was imposed, Marcos placed trials against enemies of his regime under the control of military tribunals instead of civilian courts. For this reason, death by musketry –the firing squad—became the preferred method for execution for shock and awe purposes. Lim Seng had been given a life sentence but in a rare act, Marcos increased the sentence to death. 

But aside from the public execution of Lim Seng on January 15, 1973 who was convicted of manufacturing and distributing heroin, this hardly took place. Marcos would not commute death sentences but in some cases, such as Ninoy Aquino’s, he would not implement the sentence, dangling it as a potential threat.

For most of our presidents then, since 1935, capital punishment has been a given. Only presidents who were women made a point of advocating its abolition.

Thirty years after subversion was declared a capital crime, under Corazon Aquino, the Constitutional Commission abolished the death penalty –unless otherwise provided by law for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes.

Those reasons were put forward by Fidel V. Ramos in 1993. Facing an epidemic of kidnappings and bank robberies, he proposed, and Congress enacted, the restoration of the death penalty. 

Three years later, in 1996, Congress replaced the electric chair with lethal injection as the means for execution. The first subjected to lethal injection was Leo Echegaray in February, 1999: the first execution in 23 years. When the second execution, of Eduaro Agbayani, was due in June, 1999, Al Dingwall pointed out in a FaceBook comment that President Estrada supposedly desired to stay the hand of the executioner at the last possible moment. A call from the Palace was made, minutes before the planned execution time. It turns out a fax number had been dialed. By the time the mix-up was cleared up, and the correct number was called, it was too late.

That was last execution of a convict; President Estrada announced a moratorium on executions. Ten years after FVR revived it, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called for the abolition of the death penalty, which Congress abolished again in 2006.

Since 2015, proponents of the death penalty have been active, and President Rodrigo Duterte made bringing back the death penalty part of his platform of government. He asked Congress to restore capital punishment for drug-related crimes in his first State of the Nation address. 

At first, the House excitedly proposed a whole set of crimes that would carry with them the penalty of death: rape, piracy on the high seas, plunder, and so forth. After repeated caucuses the number of applicable crimes was cut, until only drug offenses remained covered. Removing plunder, in particular, caused a lot of head-shaking among the public.

For his part, the President seems okay with that but not okay with removing rape as a capital crime. But the House has decided, and all that remains is to see who among our representatives will dare vote against it. After that, the Senate will deliberate on the proposal –and on public opinion on the question.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.