VFA and the Murder of Jennifer Laude

VFA and the Murder of Jennifer Laude. Written by Toni Tiemsin and Lian Buan for SubSelfie.com.

Co-written with Lian Buan

One year after the death of transgender woman Jeffrey Jennifer Laude, SubSelfie.com provides an update to the case filed against the suspect L/Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton.

Guilty Verdict

December 1, 2015 — The Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74 of the Philippines ruled that US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton is “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” for the killing of transgender woman Jeffrey Jennifer Laude. In his own words, Pemberton confessed to a friend that he “may have killed a he-she.” But there is a catch: the court only convicted Pemberton of the crime of homicide, a lesser crime than murder.

What will happen next to Pemberton? He faces a minimum of six years of imprisonment and a maximum of twelve years.

The court struck down the demand of Jennifer Laude’s family for civil damages amounting to P100 million, justifying that it is excessive. Instead, the court orders US Marine L/Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton to pay the family the following:

  • P4.32 million damages for loss of earning capacity
  • P50,000 for civil indemnity
  • P50,000 in moral damages
  • P155,250 for the reimbursement of wake, burial and other funeral expenses
  • P30,000 in exemplary damages.

According to the court: “The award is given to set a public example, to serve as deterrent to all military and civilian personnel of the United States of America like the accused, who from time to time, may visit the Republic of the Philippines pursuant to the VFA, to respect every Filipino citizen regardless of his/her sexual orientation and also the laws of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States of America, both parties will have to agree where to detain Pemberton. Temporarily, he will serve his sentence in the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City.

Last year, the authors of this article discussed the context and implication of Laude’s death in 2014.

The Night of the Deed

It was cold murder during the darkest of night last Saturday, October 11, 2014. The lifeless body of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old transgender woman, lay naked in a bathroom floor with her head inside the toilet bowl of a motel in Olongapo City.

Five days later, autopsy results revealed gruesome details of the cause of her death: asphyxia by drowning. Her head may have been pushed forcefully into the toilet bowl.

In a live interview on State of the Nation with Jessica Soho, Marc Sueselbeck, her fiance from Germany, condemned the murder as an act of brutality. Sueselbeck wondered aloud if God will ever forgive the suspect — a man caught on CCTV to have checked into the motel room with Jennifer that night.

A witness tagged the man in the CCTV footage as Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, a member of the 2nd Battalion of the US Marine Corps. He was on board the USS Peleliu for the annual US-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercises or PHIBLEX. It is a joint combat training stated in the Visiting Forces Agreement or VFA.

19-year-old suspect
19-year-old suspect
Positive identification
Positive identification
Witness tags Pemberton as the man in the CCTV footage
Witness tags Pemberton as the man in the CCTV footage

Little Brown Brothers

Pemberton is not the first US Marine to have been involved in a crime case in Subic Bay and Olongapo. In 2005, a Filipina accused Lance Corporal Daniel Smith of rape but the court acquitted the American soldier in 2009. Newspaper reports indicate the victim received a green card from the US embassy and is now living in America. Critics of the controversial 2005 rape case accuse Philippine authorities of granting special treatment to Smith then.

Beyond the details of these cases, many may be wondering: why are there always American soldiers in the Philippines?

The Philippine has a long military history as allies of Captain America and Uncle Sam. Americans once called Filipinos their little brown brothers. This term came from William Howard Taft, the namesake of the avenue where De La Salle University is. He also happened to be the first American Governor-General of the Philippines; eventually, he became President of the United States of America.

In 1999, the Senate ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement during the short-lived administration of former President Joseph Estrada. We can trace its roots in 1947, two years after World War II. That’s when we had the Military Bases Agreement (MBA). But in a historic act, the Philippine Senate junked the MBA in 1991. American bases had to stop its operations.

But the relationship was just too deep to disappear quickly. Even though the MBA is now in the trash bin, there remained another agreement we signed in 1951: the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The framework of the VFA used the MDT as its reference.

Now there is another agreement in the horizon: the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA, which will expand the military presence of America in the Philippines. It was signed last April but the Supreme Court has yet to decide the constitutionality of EDCA.

Timeline of the Visiting Forces Agreement before and after its ratification in 1999. Graphic art by Justin Joyas
Timeline of the Visiting Forces Agreement before and after its ratification in 1999. Graphic art by Justin Joyas

Our government claims EDCA is not a prelude to rebuilding US bases. While the American forces are in our territory, they still answer to us.

But as we fumble over who gets custody of the American suspect in the murder of Jennifer Laude, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has called for a Senate hearing to revisit the VFA. It’s yet another attempt to junk it. She believes the government cannot pass EDCA without the consent of the Senate.

The Office of the Solicitor General maintains its position that EDCA is constitutional and does not need the approval of the Senate. President Noynoy Aquino supports the new agreement as well. Even Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, the Chairman of the Senate Defense Committee, favors the merits of EDCA. Although he is open to revisiting VFA at the floor, he said it shouldn’t be junked because of its economic benefits to Filipinos.

During joint military exercises in the Philippines, the foreign troops would normally provide multiple medical, dental, veterinary and engineering civil assistance projects.

But is there really an economic gain? Or is it just an illusion?

Soldiers in action during the CARAT exercises.
Soldiers in action during the CARAT exercises.

The American Economic Dream

If we are to assess the economic impact of American forces in the Philippines, Subic Bay is a good place to start. The Americans have been staying here for almost a century. There are long tales here of how Filipinos love Americans.

When US President Barack Obama visited last April, we talked to a couple of former Naval employees, two of them were Deoprates Bulan and Ariel Beato:

Bulan: Pinag-aral kami ng base naval SRF sa loob ng apat na taon. Sa pagtatrabaho sa naval base, napakaluwag ng aming buhay noong araw. (The base naval SRF sponsored our education for four years. With our work inside the naval base, our means were easier back then.)

Beato: Dati ang sweldo ko noong 1991, P45.50 per hour, way back 1991, malaki na, maganda na sa amin ‘yun. Sa totoo lang gusto ko na silang bumalik sa atin. (Before, my wage in 1991 was P45.40 per hour. It was substantial already. It was enough for us. Truth be told, I want them to return in our country).

But there is a catch: because the Americans were giving jobs, Filipinos in Subic Bay became content with their livelihood. Few aspired to move out of foreign shadows to become more in life.

Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Chair and Administrator Roberto Garcia disagreed with this perspective when we talked to him in April. When the American soldiers left, people were forced to be more creative and resourceful with how they’ll earn. They have the energetic commerce in Subic to show for it.

Lian Buan's interview with SBMA Chair and Administrator Roberto Garcia last April 2014
Lian Buan’s interview with SBMA Chair and Administrator Roberto Garcia last April 2014

What Happened in Basilan

When the combined military offensives of the US and the Philippines attempted to rescue Martin and Gracia Burnham from the hands of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in 2002, the foreign troops also provided humanitarian assistance in Basilan.

But according to an independent peace mission, the civic programs of the American soldiers destroyed the economic capacity of the local residents. This is an excerpt from the research paper of George Baylon Radics published at the Stanford University:

There is a lot of disillusionment and demoralization, because they don’t know who to trust. And they will tell you: they cannot trust the government. They cannot even trust the church. They cannot go out. But for them, they accept that as a normal way of life . . . This thing has not only destroyed the economic capacity of the people . . . or the natural environment . . . it’s really the people being destroyed. The US is just pursuing its militaristic aims to expand its presence in the region—raising the larger question of how US militarization will affect Southeast Asia.

Radics also commented that by crippling the economic capacity of Filipinos, the Americans have turned the Filipinos as victims in this war on people.

US Navy Amphibious Tanks during the 2014 CARAT Exercises
US Navy Amphibious Tanks during the 2014 CARAT Exercises
US Marines in Subic Bay, Zambales
US Marines in Subic Bay, Zambales

The Chilling Effect of the Murder Case

It is still debatable whether the VFA is really beneficial to our economy or not. But in light of the brewing crisis in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines will have problems facing China on its own. The military support of America is a deterrent against straightforward bullying in the arena of territorial conflict.

But is this merely an act of kindness for the United States of America? Professor Roland Simbulan, an expert on PHL-US relations who reveiewed the VFA, believes it’s a two-way street. We may need America. But America needs us more as a strategic location in Southeast Asia for their military presence in the Asia Pacific region.

Filipinos should be vigilant about the VFA. This agreement should always mean we are partners of equal status. We should not feel indebted to America that we always give them what they want. The murder case of Jennifer Laude will test this. There is a clause that allows the United States to keep the custody of an American soldier who commits a crime in Philippine soil. But still, they have to cooperate with the justice system of the Philippines.

As of press time, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the City Prosecutor Office of Olongapo City sent legal documents to the US embassy to make Pemberton attend the preliminary investigation for the case.

It remains to be seen if there will really be justice for Jennifer Laude. Her fiance Marc Sueselbeck wrote us an e-mail after his live television interview: “Do your best to make this unforgotten. Do your best to make sure Jennifer gets the respect at least in the end, respect she never got from your country in her lifetime.”

Mark Sueselbeck and her murdered fiance Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman from the Philippines
Mark Sueselbeck and her murdered fiance Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman from the Philippines

[Entry 52, The SubSelfie Blog]

Editor’s Note: Toni Tiemsin sourced part of this article from his unpublished paper written for the UP Diliman Asian Center while he’s taking up his Masters Degree in Philippine Development Studies. Lian Buan is a segment producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She interviewed Sueselbeck, Chairman Garcia and ex-Naval employees in Subic Bay.

About the Authors:

Toni Tiemsin

Toni Tiemsin  is the Editor-in-Chief of SubSelfie.com. He leads the Corporate Media Influence team of Ogilvy Philippines. Previously, he was Media and Communications Officer of international NGO Save the Children, after his more than five-year stint in GMA News and Public Affairs, where he last served as Executive News Producer.

He has over 15 years experience in news media, advocacy and development communication, and brand and corporate communications. Journalism 2009, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here. For more photos of his trips, check out his Instagram.

Lian Nami Buan is the Associate Editor of Subselfie.com. She is a multimedia reporter too for Rappler, covering the Justice Beat. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England supposedly to take her Masters, until she realized what has been obvious all along — she belongs to the Philippines and nowhere else. Her areas of journalistic interests include human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Toni Tiemsin says:

    Reblogged this on daluyan ng patlang.


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