'Give Up Tomorrow' Revisits Philippine "Crime of the Decade"
The PBS POV series documentary Give Up Tomorrow recounts the jaw-dropping mockery of justice that began with the brutal murders of two young women and spiraled beyond belief when seven young men went on trial for the crime. Its a cautionary tale and a reminder that a court trial does not necessarily promise justice.
The documentary makes its debut Wednesday, October 3, 10 p.m. ET. (Check local listings.)
Sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong disappeared on July 16, 1997. One body was found in a ravine shortly thereafter. The other body was never found.
The case was an instant tabloid hit and the murders became "the crime of the decade" in the Philippine media. As the documentary unfolds, it has eerie parallels to the Simpson-Goldman murders and trial that occurred in Los Angeles that same decade.
In the Chiong cases, a young man with a somewhat privileged pedigree and thuggish reputation, Paco Larrañaga (top), and six others were arrested a few weeks after the girls' disappearance. Suspected of kidnapping, raping and murdering the Chiong sisters, they were held while the investigation continued.
The Simpson trial — even with wild procedural and media antics occurring in real-time — still managed to effect a durable sense of due-process, however widely you define that term. The Larrañaga trial quickly evolved its own brand of outrage that thrilled some and angered others. But that's where the similarity with the Simpson case ends.
It isn't a spoiler to mention that on the night of the murders and the day after, Larrañaga (who is the focus of the film) was seen 300 miles away on another Philippine island. He was seen with classmates studying for a final exam, was photographed with them, and also joined his classmates and teacher the next day. They all gave statements to the police. There would eventually be 35 eyewitness accounts that placed Larrañaga far from the island where the murders took place at the time of the crime. On any episode of Law & Order that would be an automatic walk.
These early reveals of the documentary are in bounds because they are just the first of many outrages to come. The film unfolds to show dubious mob connections to the case and police detectives giving awkward interviews where they cannot remember even the most basic of details. Surprise witnesses appear that suddenly bolster the prosecution's case.
There is media hype, including a nationally broadcast docudrama that shows Larrañaga and the others committing the crime before they had even put on their defense at trial. And there is the increasingly affected nihilism of Judge Martin Ocampo (above, left) as defense attorneys walk out of the case and are temporarily jailed for contempt of court.
And, if that weren't enough, there are defendants barred from testifying in their own defense — even as they beg the court to do so.
The trial is really just the first leg of a nightmarish journey for Larrañaga and his family, who remain staunchly loyal to him as they try and work within the rules of the Philippine legal system. At one point we see video footage smuggled out of the Manilla prison where Larrañaga and the others are held; it's a squalid, over-crowded fortress designed to hold around 10,000 inmates but instead houses double that number.
Filmmaker Michael Collins keeps things down the middle with a raft of footage gathered and interviews with both the Larrañaga and the Chiong families, particularly framing Give Up Tomorrow as a tale of the two mothers' grief. As Collins lays it out, Larrañaga was no choir boy to be sure, but that should have hardly been what put him on an express train to national pariah.
It is Thelma Chiong, (right, center) the victims' mother, however, who gained the larger media spotlight over the years as the public face of the trial — similarly possessed and often crazed as Fred Goldman was during the Simpson trial. Among other troubling things, she was connected to the Philippine president's office through a sister, and was presumed to be exerting some prosecution influence during the trial. There's a particularly off-putting interview in which her need for vengeance has clearly taken over any need for facts, or truth — her face stretched in a chilling grin.
Larrañaga's future is as harrowing as his arrest and trial. As he says from prison during the middle of the film, "If you want to give up, give up tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, think 'I'll give up tomorrow. Tomorrow after that, I'll give up tomorrow.'"