The issue of wrongful convictions is not new to the Philippines. In 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court recognized in People of the Philippines v Mateo (General Register No. 147678-87) that lower court judges were meting out the death sentence erroneously in 71.77% of capital cases. In 2008, we reported on efforts to find potential cases for post-conviction DNA testing from 2002 to 2006 (De Ungria et al., 2008).
With funding from the European Commission, the DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute at the University of the Philippines conducted an investigative review of capital cases. They did this by going to the National Penitentiary for Men, the Correctional Institute for Women, the Supreme Court archives and the Public Attorney’s Office, and consulting with NGO’s including the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and Philippine Jesuit Prison Service and the Coalition against the Death Penalty.
Because I was still relatively new in my role as Head of the Laboratory, it meant that there were additional challenges brought about by our lack of familiarity with the Philippine criminal justice system.
Out of the 106 cases that were reviewed, we found three cases involving sexual assaults which led to the birth of a child, or as they were known, “criminal paternity cases “. These cases were worth re-opening due to the existence of DNA evidence that supported the accused’s claim of innocence at a time when the Philippine criminal justice system was not yet prepared to accept post-conviction proceedings because of settled principle on finality of judgments.
Consultation between a prisoner and members of the Innocents Project Philippines Network
Our 2008 paper reported on the challenges that were encountered while attempting to assist a man whom we believed to have been erroneously convicted. After two years of searches were done to find a way to reopen the case, the Supreme Court denied the habeas corpus petition of the accused in 2004, citing, among other things, the principle that pregnancy was not an element of rape, despite DNA test results having excluded the accused from being the biological father of the child. This was the same child who the victim claimed had been conceived during a sexual encounter with the accused when she was just shy of 13 years old.
Notwithstanding the setback, we continued to work with our partners, especially the lawyers of FLAG, to help the accused in this case. In 2005, the accused was pardoned by then Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and was released after being incarcerated for 11 years. Apparently, the DNA test results that showed non-paternity and the accused’s advanced age (he was over 70 years old at the time), were included in the request made to the President for his eventual pardon.
While feeling disillusioned at the Supreme Court’s decision not to reopen the case, the dissenting opinion of then Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio in the same case provided a glimmer of hope when he raised the possibility of allowing post-conviction DNA testing in a proper case.
Volunteers pack supplies for inmates.
This glimmer of hope became a reality when on October 15, 2007, the Philippine Supreme Court promulgated the Rule on DNA Evidence which included a specific section on post-conviction DNA testing. This set of rules was a product of our work with the Philippine Judicial Academy that recognized the value of objective evidence including DNA evidence in a country that relied mainly, at times solely, on testimonial evidence. To our knowledge, this is the only judicial rule in the world that provides guidelines for the purpose of collecting, handling, storing and presenting DNA evidence at trial.
Five years after the promulgation of the Rule, we decided to form the Innocents Project Philippines Network (IPPN) in 2012. After numerous consultations with our earlier partners, we defined IPPN’s mission to be that of assisting persons who claim to have been wrongfully convicted and who are incarcerated in the National Penitentiary for Men, the Correctional Institute for Women or any of the six penal institutions scattered around the Philippine archipelago, provided there is relevant evidence that could potentially lead to a change in the conviction.
IPPN hopes to establish a clearing house which will initially screen cases and distribute these to partner law schools in the regions and provinces where the trial took place. In doing this, we aim to facilitate the access of law students to trial court documents, evidence and witnesses. In addition, IPPN could tap law students who speak the local language and who know the local culture in order to better understand the dynamics of the cases being reviewed.
Unlike human rights organizations such as FLAG which already had an established network of lawyers, some of whom teach in law schools, IPPN became instead a collaborative organization of lawyers, scientists, students of law and/or science, and volunteers that seeks to make justice accessible to wrongfully convicted persons.
The group also aims to advocate reforms in policies, laws, judicial rules, legal education, and criminal investigative procedures and evidence handling to address wrongful convictions in the Philippines; to enhance the capacities of justice stakeholders including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, criminal and forensic investigators, law students, etc.; to eradicate or mitigate wrongful convictions; and to establish an independent and accurate data bank containing all pertinent information on wrongful convictions in the Philippines.
Prisoners waiting for interviews with the IPPN.
One of IPPN’s first initiatives came in December 2012 when lawyers, law students and volunteers went to the National Penitentiary for Men and the Correctional Institute for Women, both located in the National Capital Region in order to launch the program and to conduct initial interviews.
From April to May of the following year, volunteer law and science students reviewed cases, checked other records and searched for material that could be used as evidence needed to reopen a case. Despite these efforts, we could not find a single case that qualified for a postconviction DNA appeal because of two main challenges.
The first and biggest challenge faced by IPPN is that, even though the Rule on DNA Evidence already allows post-conviction DNA testing, there simply were no existing biological samples to work with in the cases that were reviewed.
Unlike in other jurisdictions where physical evidence from crime scenes were routinely collected and stored in designated secure locations, the Philippines has no such physical evidence collection and storage system in place. Thus, there was no crime scene evidence that could be examined using DNA analysis to establish the innocence of an accused.
The second challenge is the insufficiency of funding and infrastructure to run and operate the program on a full-time basis. Without a track record of successful acquittals, IPPN is finding it difficult to secure regular financial support to establish the clearing house. We have not been successful in obtaining seed money to finance the operation of the Network for even one year to work on the IPPN organizational structure and to formalize memoranda of agreements with law schools. To date, we have no personnel working full-time on the program and everything is done on a voluntary basis.
Volunteers of IPPN in 2019
In 2018 and 2019, two practicing lawyers volunteered to work with our laboratory to run a seven-week internship for law and postgraduate students that opened discussions on wrongful convictions and human rights, at a time when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had been pushing for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Congress, and amidst an escalating number of extrajudicial killings in different parts of the country.
In 2020, the organization was re-named as the ‘Innocents Project Philippines Network’ in order to emphasize our work with persons who had been wrongfully convicted, human rights concerns in the treatment of prisoners in overcrowded jails, and social injustice resulting from the Philippines’ history of martial rule, and the compounding contribution of economic poverty to crimes in developing countries, in discussions on innocence.
Both internships ended with a visit to the National Penitentiary in order to provide some form of support to elderly prisoners, aged 65 and above, and to expose future lawyers and professionals, some of whom have never visited a jail, to the plight of inmates inside overcrowded prisons in the Philippines.
In the future, we plan to partner with various law schools in order to provide institutional support for IPPN through their legal aid clinics so that we can transition out of its current ad hoc state. We hope to set up a clearing house that can channel inquiries and cases to cooperating law schools and to tap previous IPPN law interns who are now practicing lawyers for assistance in doing this work. Additionally, we are looking at the possibility of advocacy work with the legislature to ensure that the infrastructure for the proper collection and storage of evidence is put in place.
Because of the high rate of erroneous conviction in death penalty cases that was reported by the Supreme Court and the thrust of the present administration to reimpose the death penalty as its most powerful weapon against the war on drugs and other crimes (De Ungria & Jose, 2020), there is a moral imperative for an organization such as the IPPN to be a beacon of hope for wrongfully convicted persons in their quest to obtain justice. We trust that in the future, IPPN would also be able to demonstrate to the Filipino people and the world, how forensic science can touch hearts, inspire minds and embrace humanity.
This article is based on the talk entitled ‘Challenges in Establishing an Innocence Project in the Philippines: The Innocents Project Philippines Network Experience’ that was delivered by the author during the 72nd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Anaheim, California on 21 February 2020. The author received the 2018-2019 Henry C. Lee Scholarship awarded by the Forensic Sciences Foundation Inc. during the said conference. The author would also like to acknowledge the many volunteers who through the years have kept helping IPPN in various capacities. Special thanks to our partners from the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), the Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CADP), the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service (PJPS), the University of the Philippines Office of Legal Aid (UPD-OLA), the law schools of the Ateneo de Davao and De La Salle University, and science researchers of the Natural Sciences Research Institute and the Institute of Biology, University of the Philippines Diliman.
More information on IPPN can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/innocenceprojectphilippines/.
Maria Corazon A. De Ungria, Ph.D.
DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute, University of the Philippines
Dr. Maria Corazon A. De Ungria heads the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute, University of the Philippines, Diliman, where she holds the position of University Researcher V, the highest researcher position in the university and where she was conferred a Scientist II rank in the Philippine Civil Service Commission/Department of Science and Technology Scientific Career System.
Dr. De Ungria received her Bachelor of Science with Honors from the Macquarie University and her PhD in Microbiology from the University of New South Wales both in Sydney, Australia. Because of her work in promoting the use of DNA technology as a tool for finding justice. Dr. De Ungria had received prestigious scientific awards such as the Outstanding Young Scientist from the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology as well as The Science Academy for the Developing World (TWAS).
Dr. De Ungria was named as the first Filipino regional fellow affiliate of TWAS from 2007 to 2011. Her type of leadership was recognized by different sectors that awarded her with The Outstanding Young Men award, The Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation Service award, and the Asia Society Young Leader Award. Dr. De Ungria won the search for the Outstanding Woman Researcher in the Life Sciences organized by the Third World Organization of Women Scientists in Malaysia and was named as a one of the first two National Fellows of the L’Oreal – UNESCO Women in Science Program. In 2014, the National Research Council of the Philippines gave one of the Life-time Achievement Awards to Dr De Ungria.
In 2017, the Philippine Civil Service Commission named her as one of the honorees for the ‘Dangal ng Bayan’ award for her work in advocating for the use of science to help victims of abuse. In the same year, the Australian Global Alumni Network named her as the Australia Alumni awardee for the Philippines.
After 20 years in government service, Dr. De Ungria continues to advocate for the use of excellent science in nation building, recognizing the power of science in broadening the base from which we can find creative and novel solutions for the problems that afflict society. For Dr. De Ungria, DNA is a powerful catalyst for change and she works to be a change-maker through her dedication to science at the service of society.