A twenty-something adult is at the cusp of life. He/She faces a wide array of possibilities with bright-eyed optimism, simultaneously excited and anxious for what is to come.
24-year-old Manuel Navoa was no different. He was well on his way to finish a degree in Agricultural Engineering when it would all come crashing down on a seemingly ordinary morning of June 22, 1979.
As Manuel was waiting for a ride that would bring him from hometown Tondo to Gregorio Araneta University Foundation in Malabon where he was studying, two police officers arrested him and brought him to the Western Police District precinct. He did not know what crime he was charged with. Remember, this was Martial Law era.
Warrantless arrests were the order of the day. He was not even given the benefit of being appointed a lawyer at the time of his arrest. This was his first brush with injustice up close. What he did not know was the worst was yet to come.
Scared and confused, Manuel finally found out the charges lodged against him upon reaching the WPD precinct: arson and multiple homicide. He was identified by one of the gang members in Tondo as the man who burned down Manila Cinema 1 and 2 which left 14 dead and hundreds more injured.
It continues to be the deadliest fire to hit a theater in the country to this very day. Manuel vehemently denied the charges. He was in school when the crime happened, he said. Sadly, all his protests fell on deaf ears. Although innocent, he was found guilty of the charges against him and was sentenced to death by electrocution.
DEAD MAN WALKING
Manuel felt deep-seated rage against those who wronged him. This anger festered as he languished in isolation since death row inmates were separated from general population. He thought of the ways he would avenge the injustices done against him, the heart-breaking pain and embarrassment his family had to grapple with.
He was a dead man walking anyway. It would no longer matter if he would truly hurt someone at that point. He was already a convicted killer, might as well be one.
But there were two things that held him back. The first were the words of his mother. He could never forget what she said in one of her many visits. “Anak, magpakabait ka dito. Kung hindi, hindi mo na kami makikita pa (Son, be good here. If not, you will never see us again).”
The possibility of not seeing his family was a pain he could not bear. Not even the agony of being jailed for a crime he did not commit could come close to it. He made a promise to stay away from trouble while behind such oppressive, suffocating iron bars. He kept his word, largely retreating to the solitude of his holding cell, anticipating his family’s next visit.
But there was one miracle that he did not account for, the second thing that kept him from going astray throughout his time of incarceration. Manuel found God.
Before being imprisoned, Manuel was a happy-go-lucky youth who found himself on the fringes of the wrong end of the law. It was in this direction-less period of his life that he became friends with some gang members in Tondo. They asked for favors, mostly money-related, but when Manuel could no longer give what they asked, he was accused of the crimes he was sentenced to death for. In a way, being in prison saved him. It was there, in a place supposedly meant to contain the evils of society, that he rekindled his faith.
He joined Bible studies and charismatic gatherings. He listened to testimonies of faith and was moved to his very core. He felt this surge of hope, of love, of forgiveness. Such change of heart manifested itself more concretely when Christmas came along.
He wrote letters to all those who wronged him — the men who accused him; the police officers who arrested him; the prosecutor who was assigned to his case; the judge who sentenced him to death. In his letters, he said he was no longer angry and that he had forgiven them. Although Manuel never received a reply, he felt free. He was liberated from all the wrath and bitterness over how his life turned out. He felt genuinely at peace and no longer feared the inevitable day when his death sentence would be carried out. But God, as it turned out, was not finished with him yet. (to be continued…)