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Tribeca Film Festival Highlights International Overincarceration

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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May 9, 2011

The 2011 Tribeca Film Festival came to a close last month, with the festival’s coveted Heineken Audience Award going to Give Up Tomorrow — a disturbing documentary detailing a story of an injustice perpetrated against a family in the Philippines.

Spanning more than a decade, Give up Tomorrow details what the Philippine media has called “the trial of the century.” In 1997, Paco Larranaga, a 19-year-old student, was arrested for rape and murder. He and six other young men were arrested randomly by police although there was no evidence linking them to the crime. School records and 40 witnesses placed Larranaga in class on the day of the murders. The trial judge refused to allow defendants to offer key evidence, and the police and prosecutors blatantly misconstrued and fabricated evidence. The young men were then convicted and eventually sentenced to death.

Awaiting his execution, Larranaga secretly filmed his cell, exposing the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions of his prison. Eventually, the international community pressured the Philippines to abolish the death penalty and commute Larranga’s sentence to life in prison.

Festival patrons were startled that any criminal justice system could be so brutal and unjust, and many were brought to tears. Director Michael Collins says his film “serves to highlight a universal theme: the consequences for human rights of a broken justice system, especially in those countries where the death penalty remains in place.”

With that in mind, viewers in the United States should be looking right in our own backyards. The criminal justice system in our country suffers from many of the same problems as that of the Philippines highlighted in the movie — and in some cases, we are guilty of much worse.

Police tactics similar to those used to round up Larranaga and his codefendants are being used in our own neighborhoods. According to a recent report, the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated more than 500,000 completely innocent New Yorkers in 2010, the highest number since the police department began collecting data. These stops overwhelmingly target blacks and Latinos, and are often made without reasonable suspicion.

Further, the U.S. is no stranger to prosecutorial shenanigans. Study after study has demonstrated serious prosecutorial misconduct at both the federal and state levels. In March, in Connick v. Thompson, the Supreme Court ruled on a case where a man spent 18 years in prison and 14 years on death row, because a prosecutor did not turn over blood evidence that exonerated him for armed robbery and greatly affected his murder trial.

Larranaga’s video of his prison’s conditions was often barely indistinguishable from scenes that are readily found in California’s overbloated prisons. California’s prisons have been filled beyond capacity for 20 years. The state houses 164,000 inmates in a system designed to hold about 80,000. It has jammed double and triple bunks into gymnasiums because there is nowhere else to put people. It is an inhumane and dangerous way to house prisoners, but it is one that has become all too common across the country as we refuse to break our addiction to incarceration.

Perhaps most disturbing for Americans is to acknowledge that the United States has executed possibly innocent people. For example, in 2004 Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, who appears to have been innocent. And Troy Davis sits on death row in Georgia although there is now no solid evidence against him. American viewers of Give Up Tomorrow will be ill-served to forget that a broken criminal justice system is not just a problem that developing countries or nondemocratic countries face. We’d like to think that we are the “Land of the Free,” but our overcrowded prisons tell another story. The truth is, the United States is a country that likes to put people behind bars. We are the largest incarcerators in the world, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Making matters worse, this rush to incarcerate has severely strapped our state budgets.

As we in the United States watch Larranaga’s story unfold in the film, we should be moved not only to join the family’s cause to “Free Paco,” but to turn the lens on our own country and our deeply troubled prison system.

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