By Rodrigo Bacus
On Dec. 1, 2015, Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. marine, was found guilty by a Philippine court of homicide in the death of Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipino citizen. It has been over a year since the beginning of the trial of Pemberton for the murder of Laude. Since that night, her friends, family, and advocates have strongly urged the U.S. and the Philippines to uphold the rule of law and ensure justice. While the conviction was a small, yet incomplete, victory, the greater issue that looms is the uneven power relationship between a country occupied by a foreign military presence, and the unjust arrangements produced as a result. Although the trial brought the case to a close, the justice that advocates sought is still far from achieved.
According to reports, on Oct. 11, 2014, Laude decided to have drinks with her friend Barbie, whose full name on government documents is Mark Clarence Gelviro. While in the bar, Ambyanz Night Life, Laude and Barbie met Pemberton, who was out on leave that night. Engaged to Marc Sueselbeck at the time, Laude had previously engaged in sex work off and on for six years, but had not done so for the past six months. That night, however, she decided to take customers as a way to compete with friends and have fun. After spending some time together, Laude agreed to leave with Pemberton. Laude, Barbie and Pemberton headed together to the Celzone Lodge, a nearby hotel. Barbie left Pemberton’s room to another part of the hotel and left Laude and Pemberton in the room alone. About 30 minutes later, Pemberton left the building. When he returned to his ship, he confessed what happened that night to his roommate, Jairn Rose, who listened as Pemberton told him about the two girls he met. Pemberton said he had noticed that when Laude undressed, she had a penis. Out of rage, he said he choked her from behind and then, when her body stopped moving, dragged her to the bathroom and left. “I think I killed a he-she,” Pemberton said, assuring his friend that he was serious.
Later that night, a hotel employee found Laude naked and dead with her head submerged in the bathroom toilet. Pemberton was the last person seen with Laude that night. Local police arrived at the crime scene, as well as a team from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which seemed to have knowledge that the incident involved an American serviceman even before Pemberton confessed to Rose. At this time, local authorities had neither brought Pemberton in for questioning nor requested an affidavit. Soon after, the police released an official report confirming that Laude had died due to asphyxia. Laude’s mom, upon hearing about the incident, took a 24-hour bus to where Jennifer lived and was surprised that the government had not taken any action. Four days later, lacking assurance from the government that they would move forward with a case, Laude’s family filed a murder complaint against Pemberton.
As the case began, the Philippine court subpoenaed Pemberton for the preliminary investigation, but he was aboard the USS Peleliu at the time and did not appear. In a statement, Philip Goldberg, American Ambassador to the Philippines, cited the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the United States, as a reason why a U.S. ship held Pemberton in custody instead of a local precinct. Under the VFA, the U.S. can request the ability to retain custody over a suspect until judicial proceedings are completed. The U.S. invoked its ability to do so without a formal request, stating that it is its right under the agreement to exercise this power. The decision sparked outrage and united many activist groups and human rights defenders, some calling the incident a “hate crime.” It took until December 2014 to issue an arrest warrant for Pemberton, though the US had moved Pemberton to a Philippine army camp while still retaining custody of him in late October 2014. Pemberton stayed in a room within the camp and was guarded by US soldiers.
About a year after the incident, Pemberton finally appeared in court for the first time to recite his testimony of events to the public. Pemberton testified that he and Laude had begun to fight once he discovered that Laude had a penis. Pemberton pushed Laude. Laude slapped him. He punched her and then put her in a chokehold until she was no longer moving. Then, he tried to revive her in the bathroom over the toilet and eventually left in a taxi. The defense attorney wrote in an email to the New York Times that Pemberton did not kill Laude and had left her alive in the bathroom. The defense included this testimony to introduce complicating circumstances, including self-defense and the controversial trans panic defense. The trans panic defense attempts to equate the shock of discovering that a person is gay or trans to traditional scenarios where a “sudden quarrel” or the “heat of passion” would make it less likely that a person actually had malicious intent to kill another. Defendants have used the argument to persuade courts and juries to base rulings on unjust and damaging stereotypes about LGBT victims. California banned the trans panic defense in 2014, referring to the discriminatory effects it had on LGBT victims. The Philippine court had the opportunity with Laude’s case to decide that the use of such a defense in the Philippines is equally unacceptable.
On Dec. 1st 2015, the court found Pemberton guilty of the lower charge of homicide, which has a sentence of between six to 12 years. The court found that evidence supported the fact that Pemberton had killed Laude. However, it lowered the conviction from murder to homicide. The court was convinced that Pemberton should be considered less blameworthy for Laude’s death because Laude had kept the fact that she is a trans woman from Pemberton. Activists and supporters of Laude criticized the court’s consideration of this fact to lower the charge. By its finding, the court has tacitly admitted that the trans panic defense is a valid way to get away with murder.
In addition to their criticism of the validation of the trans panic defense, supporters of Laude have also criticized the actual enforcement of justice in this case. As soon as the court rendered the guilty judgment, U.S. troops in Camp Aguinaldo, where Pemberton is held, moved to block attempts by police to take Pemberton to custody. Because of the VFA, the U.S. has power to influence the determination of where Pemberton can serve his sentence. The agreement does not give the Philippine government the same power if the roles were reversed. Activists criticized the agreement and its practical effects in this case as yet another intrusion into Philippine sovereignty and another impediment to achieving justice.
For activists, Laude’s case is yet another reminder of how unequal agreements can allow one side to commit crimes with impunity. For instance, without active intervention by supporters of Laude, Pemberton’s case may have never been filed or given any attention in the first place. Moreover, activists had to ensure that Pemberton was not removed from the country. Finally, even at the point of judgment, Pemberton was given a lesser sentence for using a highly controversial defense, and has not yet been taken into custody.
BEYOND THE CASE: UNJUST TREATIES
Beyond Laude’s case, activists see unequal and unjust defense treaties as the overarching issue. Human rights group, KARAPATAN, actively condemns bilateral defense agreements such as the VFA and supports their cancellation. In its statement, KARAPATAN underscores that the death of Laude is not just a marker of the violence that trans people face globally, but also of the impunity by which American soldiers can conduct themselves due to the unequal agreements that protect them while failing to protect the rights of certain communities in the Philippines. KARAPATAN has documented five other cases in which Filipinos died as a result of actions by or in service of U.S. military troops, without any justice or accountability for those deaths.
In regions of the Philippines where the U.S. military has a strong presence, complicated relationships between communities also arise. For example, most people in region where Laude died value the business of American soldiers, and some even blamed Laude for the recent drop in business. However, trans and LGBT people, among others, face beatings, discrimination and other abuse from American soldiers, who do not fear punishment or accountability. They are increasingly frustrated by continuing abuses and injustice.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government recently signed a tighter supplemental agreement to the VFA with the United States, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). With EDCA, U.S. soldiers no longer have to stay temporarily as “visitors,” and the U.S. can deploy them to any agreed upon location in the Philippines. KARAPATAN predicts a surge in human rights violations and further erosion of Philippine sovereignty, which were the very reasons U.S. naval bases in the Philippines were closed in 1991. Furthermore, increased funding from the U.S. based on EDCA has strengthened the current regime’s counterinsurgency military campaign, Oplan Bayanihan, which has spurred human rights violations in Southern Philippines where 50 percent of Philippine forces are located.
In the face of this, human rights defenders are calling for justice for Filipinos who have experienced human rights abuses at the hands of the U.S. military. They are urging the Philippine government to revoke unequal bilateral defense agreements such as the VFA and EDCA. Most importantly, they are seeking solidarity in bringing to light the violence faced by the LGBT community and in securing LGBT rights as guaranteed under international human rights law.
Rodrigo Bacus is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Creative Commons