November 02, 1999

Words will never be enough (Eyewitness accounts of two executions)

I am among the very few in the country who have watched an execution; I've watched two. Both were my clients. The executions were conducted February 5 and October 26, 1999. Within the span of February 1999 to January 4, 2000, the Philippines murdered seven people in five executions, including a triple execution carried out in one day.

What follows are actual notes taken and recorded on a PDA during the executions and other notes taken immediately after.


Leo Echegaray, February 5, 1999, Friday:

1. Chel and I went into Holding Cell at 1145; we saw Leo behind an enclosure through a small glass window behind a locked and bolted door. There was not enough room for my hand to enter; the only physical contact possible were through our fingers.

2. Leo was smiling and upbeat; he told Chel and me that his BP was normal and that his last recorded BP was 100 over 70; he told us that he had eaten so much for breakfast, almost finishing two drumsticks.

3. Leo's mood remained upbeat all throughout; he remained smiling all throughout. When asked for last words, he said, "Umaasa pa ako na hindi matutuloy ito. Nakangiti pa naman ako."

4. We left the Holding Cell at about 1200; the meeting didn’t last thirty minutes. I didn’t know what to say to him; all that I could do was to smile, even if I felt like crying, because Leo was smiling.

5. In the waiting room with USEC Puno and Liwag and Director Sistoza; exchanged small talk; don’t feel like talking to them; very frustrated and upset and terrified at what I am going to see in a few hours; praying very hard that it won’t happen.

6. 230: media witnesses ushered in; saw some friends, Susan of GMA, Butch of PTV, Jomar of DWIZ; Korina and Ted not around (too hot for them siguro); exchanged small talk with them; they’re nervous–especially Susan, who became close to Leo and Zeny; she’s talking very fast–nervous;

7. 251: ushered into the Chamber; 2 glass panels with a blue curtain drawn across; Leo's voice, "sinasaktan nyo lang ako"; sounds of paper or rubber tubing; occasional beeping sounds from a machine; flash bulbs go off; Cayetano and Recto in the room also; Fr. Bobby's voice praying; everybody looking at the clock; sound of the airconditioner; 32 seats; a small aisle; stoic guards; witnesses turning to look at the clock over and over again; praying so hard.

8. 259: curtain is drawn; last words, "patawarin nyo ako sambayanang pilipino sa kasalanang pinaratang nyo sa akin. Pilipino pinatay ng kapwa pilipino."

[After this, I couldn’t continue writing on my PDA. What follows is a stone-cold sober recollection of the day’s events written at about 2:00 in the morning of February 6, 1999 despite five (5) shots of tequila and several beers.]

At exactly 3:00 PM, breaths were collectively drawn and all eyes were fixed on Leo, directly in front of us. He looked, ironically, like a person crucified, with both arms stretched as in a cross. The only sound in the room was the heartbeat monitor, the sobbing of Zeny (Leo’s wife) and Tess (Leo’s sister) and the beeping of my own heart.

I stopped looking at the clock; I stopped praying the rosary in mid-decade. I couldn’t do anything except stare–helplessly. I didn’t want to watch but I couldn’t take my eyes off Leo.

Leo’s eyes remained closed; at some point, it looked like he "clenched" his eyes shut. I don’t know how long it took but at some point, Leo turned darker and darker. First, his lips, then his face. His color turned purplish–kulay talong. Still, the only sound in the room was the monitor and the now-incessant crying of Zeny and Tess.

At 3:18 PM (I looked at the clock), three doctors were called in; his life signs were taken even as the monitor clearly showed that he had flat-lined; nevertheless, the female doctor listened to his heartbeat using a stethoscope; a second one also did. One minute later, 3:19 PM (I looked at the clock again), the first female doctor intoned in a flat monotone, "the condemned man is dead."

The curtains were then drawn.

Tess was now sobbing loudly; Zeny was howling. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry or lash out in anger and frustration, or all three at the same time. A person had just been killed in front of me and it took all of 19 minutes. I sat down and tried to pray for him and for all of us–the words would not come; I could not complete even a "Hail Mary." I wanted to do something–anything, but I didn’t know what; I wanted to feel something–anything, but I didn’t know how. My eyes were completely dry; my hands were clenched in fists; my heart was beating fast.

I was seated at the last chair on the last row on the right side. I wanted to wait for all of them to leave before I left; that was not to be as Mr. Rod Cornejo, VP for Finance of GMA 7 and an active member of the Prison Fellowship, drew me up, shook my hand and embraced me, telling me "it’s all right. God is in control." Soon after, Senator Cayetano extended his hand to me; I didn’t want to take his hand because he represented everything that I despised–a sleazy, despicable opportunist who would prance and preen at the slightest sight of a camera–but, I was not myself then, I took his hand.

When I left the chamber, the guards were solicitous and courteous. They were absolutely professional. Some of them shook my hand and guided me out.

Outside, Congressman Recto was talking to Chel (a fellow Lasallian) and when he saw me, extended his hand to shake mine. I remember his words then, "I'm for the death penalty but if this is going to happen for the over 700 deathrow inmates, then there has to be a better way. This is wrong."

In the heat of the day, the first thing I remember doing was bumming a smoke from Chel–not because I wanted to but because I felt I had to do something to still the raging emotions within me; after a few drags, I threw the stick away.

By that time, Tess had already recovered enough to come out and thank Chel and me; I drew her into a hug even as she was sobbing. I assured her that all the legal complications for Leo’s remains to be delivered to the family would be taken care of and that Chel and I would see to it. Zeny was hysterical and was being attended to by a female guard.

Justice Cuevas then approached me and extended his hand; I took his hand and asked him straight out to facilitate the release of the remains to Tess and the family. He immediately said that it was being done, as we were speaking.

After being assured that the remains would be delivered to the family, despite the legal complications of Zeny signing and the Bureau not wanting to recognize Tess’s authority as sister, Chel and I left; Brother Arsing and Fr. Roy had brought the van and we hurriedly boarded it.

The first thing I remember doing after the execution was to go inside the church; I was heedless of the media and the cameras; I remember seeing Cookie, Erin, Fr. Jun Jun and the rest of the FLAG members and PJPS people; but I just felt that I wanted a few moments alone with Him, especially after seeing such a monstrosity. After some time (I am thankful that, this time, prayer did come and there was some measure of peace in me.) and silence, I felt a little better and I was able to face the media and answer a few questions (I would always remember the officious twit who asked me "Do you think that you have failed as a lawyer?" I wanted to smash his camera into his face and make him eat it but practical concerns prevailed--mahal ang camera niya).

Thereafter, we (Cookie, Arno, Chel, Ed, Erin) proceeded to Galo’s to get drunk; despite several shots of tequila and some beers, I managed to stay sober and awake the entire evening and managed to remember . . .

Pablito Andan, October 26, 1999, Tuesday:

The first thing I remembered was that there was not that much fanfare, this time around. There was still a lot of media but not as much as the time that Leo was executed. There were also some changes in the security procedure.

I had filed last-minute motions and petitions for Bobby (as I did for Leo) but all of them had been denied by the Supreme Court (as it did in Leo’s case). Again, the inevitable was upon me. This time, it was harder because Bobby had very young kids and Bobby himself was very young.

But, there was, legally, nothing I could do anymore. So, once again, I trooped to the Chamber to witness another execution; my second in a year. I thought that it would not be that much different from the first and hoped that it would be much easier to handle than Leo’s.

I was wrong.

At about 2:00 PM, I went into the Chamber; I asked to talk with Bobby. The Rules actually prohibited any visits at this time, so close to the execution time. But I insisted on Bobby’s rights to have counsel visit him anytime; Fr. Bobby Olaguer helped; the guards finally relented.

I had a long talk with Bobby; I told him that there was legally nothing I could do and that we had done everything we could think of; he just smiled and thanked me; he told me that he was worried about his kids; I told him that his family was with PJPS but that none of them wanted to witness the execution; he told me that it was alright and that he didn’t want them to witness it anyway; I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him; he thanked me again and slipped a letter (in yellow pad) through the tiny enclosure and asked me to give it to his family; he also removed a scapular and a tiny "El Shaddai" hanky and gave it to me for me to give to his family; I slipped these into my pocket and assured him that I would do so; Bobby was anxious; he was restless; he would alternately smile and lapse into a serious expression; on my part, I didn’t know what to say so I just didn’t say anything.

At about 2:30 PM, I took my leave of Bobby. We "shook fingers"; he smiled and thanked me again. I assured him "walang problema, Bobby." I then left the Holding Cell and proceeded to the Waiting Room. I met Fr. Bobby on the way out; I thanked him for his help in getting me to see Bobby Andan.

After waiting for about twenty minutes, we were ushered into the Chamber; no change in the way it looked; this time, however, there was more noise than with Leo’s execution; people were talking fast and quite loudly–particularly the media representatives; I was seated in the same seat–last seat, last row, right side–I was in during Leo’s execution. I wanted to stand up and say something to the media representatives, to tell them to keep quiet; Rod Cornejo, however, spared me of that burden by standing up and telling the media representatives that "this is not a picnic, we are here to watch a person being killed, please give this occasion some respect." He then asked everybody in the room to pray. At that, the room quieted down.

At about 3:00 PM, the curtains were drawn and Bobby was there, tied down. Unlike Leo’s execution, he looked as if he was already drugged; his eyes were half-closed and he looked almost asleep. He was then asked if he had any last words; he uttered, in a very soft almost inaudible voice, "mahal ko po sila, mahal ko po sila." After a few seconds after he uttered the statement, the Director stepped back.

The process got underway; my initial suspicions that he had been administered the first drug even before the curtains were drawn were confirmed by the speed by which the execution was carried out–unlike Leo’s case, it took only seven (7) minutes. At 3:07 PM, Bobby Andan was pronounced dead.

There were no relatives to cry for Bobby in the Chamber. It was a very quiet procession that trooped out of the Chamber; no politicians were around; Rod Cornejo just shook my hand, shaking his head in silence.

I left the Chamber and, after ensuring that the funeral arrangements were in order, went with Arsing, back to PJPS. There, I had the most difficult task of informing Bobby’s family that he was gone; I took his letter, his scapular and hankie and gave them to the family, informing them that he wanted them to have it. At this, his sister broke down and started wailing. I just had to leave the room then.

Postcript:

All my life, I have never seen somebody die in front of me; I am fortunate in that regard. I have, however, in my 34 years of life, witnessed two persons being killed in front of me in a span of only nine (9) months.

There is a difference between the two experiences.

You can prepare yourself to watch a loved one die in front of you; you can try to plumb the depths of your being and spirit to find the strength and fortitude to steel you for the inevitable loss.

Nothing, however, can prepare you to watch someone being killed in front of you.

Cayetano went public, after Leo’s execution, saying that it was "painless." It is a testament to his monumental stupidity and craven and crass sleaziness that he would attempt to describe something that he has not even gone through.

There are no words to describe the absolutely horrifying spectacle of witnessing a person being killed in cold-blood in front of you. There are no words to describe the emotions that well up in you at the sight of a life being taken.

Even now, after witnessing two executions almost two years ago, when people ask me how I would describe the experience, I still tell them the same thing. Words have not been invented to describe the experience–it goes beyond despair, sorrow, frustration, anger, rage, helplessness and pity, yet it is all of these and more. It is an experience, literally, that I would not wish on my greatest enemy. That is how horrifying witnessing an execution can be.

And, yet, it can be a profoundly liberating experience. The cruelty that attends an execution underscores the humanity in all of us–that we are all imperfect and incomplete; that without a higher purpose and a higher being, we would all be wandering around in the wilderness like Cain–lost and adrift. The utter cruelty of watching another person put to death gives you pause and cause to reflect on what this life means for all of us; it gives each of us the chance to think of the values that permeate each of our lives–the regard for rights, the compassion for others, the love for country and the fear of God. In this sense, if we are to emerge as better persons--more human and humane beings--after these executions, the senseless deaths of Leo and Bobby and the others would not have proved to be meaningless.