On this date in 1999, the Philippines resumed executions after 23 years with its first-ever lethal injection.
But rampant crime made an execution comeback a potent political issue that helped to carry Fidel Ramos* to the presidency in 1992. The revival would bring along the latest upgrades in killing-people technology: whereas the Philippines had previously used the electric chair, a holdover from its former colonial domination by the United States, it now followed America’s footsteps in preferring the sanitized experience of lethal injection.
Leo Echegaray, destined to become the first person to meet such a fate in the Philippines, was a house painter convicted of raping his daughter or stepdaughter. (Despite Rodessa’s surname, her mother and Leo never married. Rodessa Echegaray’s uncertain biological parentage was at issue in the case, as to the question of whether the rape could be said to be incestuous: rape committed by a father was a specific subcategory of rape under the law uniquely eligible for the maximum penalty.)
The Supreme Court had no interest in parsing DNA, finding that the parenthood “disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss where perpetrators of heinous crimes ought to be.”
“The victim’s tender age and the accused-appellant’s moral ascendancy and influence over her are factors which forced Rodessa to succumb to the accused’s selfish and bestial craving,” it ruled. “The law has made it inevitable under the circumstances of this case that the accused-appellant face the supreme penalty of death.”
That was in 1996. By the time Echegaray came to the actual end of his appeals cycle, Ramos had given way to the mercurial Joseph Estrada. A former actor, Estrada put his showmanship to use by having his telephone hotline to the prison disconnected prior to Echegaray’s execution to underscore his resolve not to entertain any 11th-hour commutation.
The 11th hour was of intense interest to everyone else. The supposedly secret time and circumstances of Echegaray’s move to the death house was leaked and resulted in a circus scene as the doomed prisoner, Bible in hand and “Execute Justice, Not People” pinned his orange prison jumpsuit, pushed through a raucous crowd of journalists to a van waiting to drive him to New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for his milestone date. The undignified “execution fiesta” continued hours later in the official witness room, where media jostled for the best seats, and even to Echegaray’s last rest as reporters hounded the hearse and beyond. (Actual example: “I’m here at the funeral parlor and I’m holding Leo’s leg. It’s a bit warm and it looks like he is only sleeping.”)
Once the death chamber’s seal was cracked, it saw steady traffic: Six other people suffered execution in the Philippines during the ensuing 12 months. Then, as abruptly as capital punishment had returned to the Philippines, it blinked away.
Whether pricked by his conscience or by the political resistance of the Vatican, Estrada’s flamboyant resolve appeared to waver after Echegaray’s execution, even leading to one appalling occasion where he tried frantically to call in a last-second stay for another man but couldn’t get through until the execution was underway. Estrada finally suspended executions once again in March 2000 to honor the millenial Jubilee of Christ‘s birth. Estrada himself didn’t last much longer after that moratorium expired, and his successor President Gloria Arroyo also finalized no death sentences during her term — until in 2006 Arroyo signed repeal legislation and commuted all 1,230 existing death sentences.
* Ramos had formerly been a Philippines Constabulary officer, and in that capacity been personally present at the televised 1973 execution of heroin kingpin Lim Seng.