Of Presidents and the Penalty of Death

Joel F. Ariate Jr, VERA Files

Posted at Aug 14 2019 12:33 PM | Updated as of Aug 15 2019 10:23 AM

(Second of two parts)

Since the Philippines regained its independence on July 4, 1946, those who were elected president accepted the death penalty as a matter of course. Except for Manuel Acuña Roxas, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, and Ramos, all the other presidents reckoned with the fate of convicts up for execution. The telephone in the execution chamber supposedly with a direct line to Malacañang came to symbolize the looming power of the president over a convict’s life. The president at the very last minute could order a reprieve or commute a sentence.

President Elpidio Rivera Quirino (April 17, 1948-Dec. 30, 1953) had 13 men executed during his term. To two convicts he gave a 15-day and a 30-day reprieve, respectively, before finally allowing the prisons director to proceed with the execution. To Ireneo Bongog, he first gave a 30-day reprieve before finally commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Quirino was the first president to allow the execution of foreign nationals, three Chinese who were convicted of kidnapping and kidnapping with murder.

Under Quirino’s watch, the electric chair was first used on April 26, 1950. Julio Guillen attempted to assassinate President Roxas on March 10, 1947, by throwing a grenade at him during a rally in Plaza Miranda. An aide managed to kick the grenade from the stage. When it exploded in the plaza, it killed one and severely injured four others. Quirino was Roxas’ vice president and loyal party mate.

A tarpaulin in the Marcoses' World Peace Center in Batac, Ilocos Norte bearing a staple claim in the Marcos propaganda repertoire. Photo by Judith Camille E. Rosette.

President Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay (December 30, 1953-March 17, 1957) had six men executed. He halted the double execution of Ging Sam and Gregorio Gonzales on May 6, 1954, to carefully study their cases and decide whether to grant executive clemency. The usual hour for executions was 3:00 in the afternoon. He gave the go signal to proceed around 6:00 in the evening. The executions ended at 7:09 that night. He once issued a 15-day reprieve simply because the execution fell on Mabini Day (July 23, 1956). Then on August 3, 1956, Malacañang decided to cut the reprieve short; the convict was executed the following day. Of Maximiano Floresca, writer and editor Ileana Maramag noted in the April 14, 1957 issue of Sunday Times Magazine: “One of the last wishes the prisoner asked of his family was to vote for Magsaysay. The President had earlier granted him two reprieves and for this the condemned man had been sincerely grateful.” He did not get another reprieve and was executed on March 14, 1957.

President Carlos Polestico Garcia (March 18, 1957-December 30, 1961) had 14 men executed. Most of these men had received a 30-day reprieve. Some got two or three more reprieves, but he eventually allowed their execution. He commuted at least four death sentences to life imprisonment. The most talked about was the one received by Primitivo Ala. He was supposed to follow Marcial “Baby” Ama to the electric chair on October 4, 1961, but as Ama’s body was taken out of the death chamber, he was informed of the commutation of his sentence.

President Diosdado Pangan Macapagal (December 30, 1961-December 30, 1965) had but one instance to review with finality the case of three men who were up for execution the same day for the same charge of murder. On January 30, 1962, he had two of them executed. Constantino Dueñas, the third convict, received a sentence commutation.

President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos (December 30, 1965-February 25, 1986) had 32 convicts executed. Sixteen of them were executed after martial law was declared. This fact, however, is being disputed by newly elected Senator Imee Marcos. Senator Marcos insists that her dictator-father had only one person, the Chinese drug lord Lim Seng, executed. Prison records do not bear this out.

Daughters of former presidents tend to lower the number of convicts their fathers had allowed to be executed. Macapagal-Arroyo was mentioned in a June 24, 2006, report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) to have claimed that her father allowed only one execution during his term.

Photo gallery of the electrocuted convicts. Photo by Jamela Alindogan.

Marcos grappled with the issue of the death penalty. It was an important issue for him, important enough to enlist the help of his propagandists in the press. Here’s Vicente Albano Pacis (Republic, March 27, 1970):

In a single stroke of the pen, President Marcos has commuted to life the death sentences imposed by the courts on a total of 339 prisoners, 49 already confirmed by the Supreme Court and the others pending before this body. With this action, he has also given tacit notice that no death penalty will ever be carried out during the balance of his term.

If only Marcos truly did that. Reporting for The Weekly Nation (June 22, 1970), Romy V. Mapile wrote that it was not a commutation but a reprieve: “A total of 351 convicts saw a new ray of hope when President Marcos issued a general stay of executions last Feb. 12. The death sentence of 48 of them had been affirmed by the Supreme Court.”

And the Official Gazette itself had this entry for Feb. 12, 1972, in the “President’s Week in Review”: “Granted reprieves to all convicts in the national penitentiary sentenced to die by electrocution pending serious study by the government on the possible abolition of capital punishment.”

Marcos’s decision resulted in a two-year death penalty moratorium. But contrary to Pacis’ hope, he simply delayed the execution of convicts. He started with the triple killing of Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda, and Edgardo Aquino, rapists of actress Maggie de la Riva. Their execution on May 17, 1972, had live radio coverage, and the usual handful of witnesses in an execution reached almost 50 in number.

Eight months later, he had Lim Seng executed by musketry in public with live radio and television coverage (and later replayed in cinemas). Then after a triple execution on March 21, 1974, he stopped.

State executions started again with Leo Echegaray on Feb. 5, 1999. Macapagal-Arroyo had marched in a rally calling for his execution. She would later explain that she was there for the victim to have justice and not for the death penalty to be imposed. Yet this instance was quite symptomatic of how she ended up abolishing the death penalty: via flip-flops. As reported by PCIJ on June 24, 2006:

Shortly after she was sworn in as president in 2001, Arroyo announced that she was not in favor of executions and proceeded to commute the sentences of 18 death-row convicts. But a few months after, on Oct. 15, Arroyo announced in a meeting of Filipino-Chinese businessmen that she would resume executions due to the rise of kidnappings that targeted the Tsinoy community.

True to her word, on December 2003, Arroyo lifted the de facto moratorium on executions issued by former President Joseph Estrada.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Arroyo said she would allow the death penalty for convicted kidnappers and drug lords. But no death sentence has been carried out under her administration so far.

In 1993, Arroyo chose to abstain from voting on a bill that would reimpose the death penalty for certain heinous crimes.

She said she was “torn between a constituency that clamors for it because of the sickening examples of heinous crimes and a conscience.”

GMA News ended up with a rather lengthy timeline just trying to keep up with Macapagal-Arroyo’s dexterity in navigating a potentially controversial issue (https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/content/25087/gloria-arroyo-on-the-death-penalty-a-timeline/story/). But she did sign into law RA 9346 that prohibited the imposition of the death penalty. It’s the very law that Duterte and his legislative henchmen, her current political allies, would very much like to undo.

To pardon or commute a sentence, as pointed out by legal scholars, is not a private discretion of the chief executive. It remains, as argued by Romulo Gatilao in a 1959 Philippine Law Journal article, “a benign expression of the sovereign will.” But making that sovereign will apparent is a president that must wrestle with his or her inner demons and saints on whether to save a life or take it.

A president may campaign and clamor to kill criminals. He may do so secretly through deputies and death squads. But giving the green light to kill convicts is political theater in and of itself. The braggadocio sputters into a studied silence. A pretense for equanimity is played out before denying an appeal or making a reprieve lapse. The state kills on schedule, though a momentary delay is desired to show that a president agonizes over life and justice, retribution, and death. Pleas for clemency offer a president a chance for a dramatic pause. Then in an ever-calculated manner, he signals for death to descend. He gets to be a killer himself.


(Joel F. Ariate Jr. is a university researcher at the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)