Transcript: 179. The Jennifer Laude Affair | The Philippines

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On October 11, 2014, the naked body of 27-year-old Jennifer Laude was discovered in a hotel room in Olongapo, Philippines. She had been beaten, strangled, and drowned in the toilet. 


Eyewitness statements and hotel surveillance footage led police to the last person who was with her. The young US Marine admitted to being with Jennifer and confessed that he had choked her, but he claimed she was still alive when he left the hotel room. 


What seemed to be an open-and-shut case, caused an uproar in the local community. Jennifer's case cut deep – she was murdered because of gender identity. But there was more to the case that outrages people to this day. Her killer was eventually pardoned to be used as a political pawn, and Jennifer’s loved ones have vowed to keep up the fight until justice is served.


>>Intro Music

Jennifer Laude – who was assigned male at birth and named Jeffrey Sardonsilyo, was born on November 4, 1987, in the Philippines. She was one of three siblings, having two sisters, Michelle and Marilou. The three girls lived together with their mother, Julita Cabillan, in Tacloban City, Leyte, the hometown of their deceased father.


From a young age, Jennifer already knew she was a girl and would often call herself beautiful. Fortunately, she had an amazing and very accepting family who supported her – Jennifer's mother even gave her the nickname Ganda, which means beautiful in Filipino. In addition, Julita said it did not matter at all how her daughter identified as long as she was a good and responsible person. And that is exactly what Jennifer was – a kind, caring and responsible person. 


According to her friends and family, Jennifer grew up to be fearless, generous and always full of joy. She studied hotel and restaurant services at AIE College in Olongapo – where she was allowed to wear the uniform of female students – and was dreaming of becoming a flight attendant. In addition to her studies, Jennifer worked at a beauty parlour and regularly sent money to her mother. Jennifer was known to be a very hard worker who would often stay late and do overtime to earn extra money or free food—in that way, she was able to provide more to her mother and sisters. Marilou once said that Jennifer was always there for her loved ones:


"She never turned her back on a relative or a friend who would always run to her for help or for advice."


But Jennifer did not work hard just to help her family, she also wanted to be seen as someone who had accomplished something and someone whose life had value. Perhaps then people would finally stop calling her names on the street. Life as a trans person in the Philippines is not easy, and Jennifer knew very well she had to prove herself many times more than straight people do.


Then in 2012, when Jennifer was 25-years-old, it appeared she had found love. Jennifer met Marc Sueselbeck from Duisburg, Germany, on an online dating site. Later that same year, Jennifer and Marc began a romantic relationship and soon after, she decided to drop out of school. Instead, she focused on her job while her boyfriend sent her a monthly allowance to supplement her income.


The relationship grew serious fast and on December 24, 2012, Marc proposed to Jennifer at the jewellery section of an Olongapo City mall. The two planned to get married in Europe, but Jennifer kept having problems getting her visa application approved. Nevertheless, by 2014, Marc and Jennifer had decided they would get married in March the following year – one way or another. Instead of Europe, they would travel to Thailand as soon as their documents were finalised. But unfortunately, Jennifer and Marc's union would never happen.


In the afternoon of October 11, 2014, Jennifer spoke with Marc via online chat and sent him a video of her playing with her two dogs. Jennifer also let her boyfriend know she planned to go out later that evening to visit a friend. However, Jennifer might have had something else in mind.


It seems that Marc was unaware of his fiancée’s other job, but Jennifer allegedly made some extra money as a sex worker. Her family also denies the allegations, but according to Jennifer's closest friend, she did work in Olongapo City in Zambales, Luzon, which is known as a red-light district. The area is close to Subic Bay Freeport, which was once home to the Subic Bay Naval Base, the largest U.S. Navy base outside the United States at the time.


That Saturday night of October 11th, Jennifer and her friend Mark Clarence "Barbie'' Caguioa Gelviro, also a transwoman, went to the Ambyanz NightLife Club located on Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo City. According to Barbie, they were having fun and some drinks when around 10pm, handsome US marine approached their table. He was at the club together that night with three fellow Marines and Barbie hit it off with one of his friends.


Jennifer and the marine talked for some time, and as Barbie found a companion too, they all left to the nearby motel of Celzone [cell-zone] Lodge around 11pm. According to Barbie, she went into the hotel room with Jennifer and her new friend for a moment before leaving to go to her companion. Nothing seemed to be wrong whatsoever. But thirty minutes later, the muscular marine left the motel alone, leaving the door of his room ajar. A staff member entered the room soon after to see why the door was left open… That is when they discovered the naked body of Jennifer Laude.


She was on the floor, partially covered with a blanket from waist down. Jennifer's neck was full of bruises, most likely strangulation marks, and her head was in the toilet bowl, partly submerged in water.


Elias Gallamos, the lodge's cashier, who also discovered the body, told the police that Jennifer entered the lodge with an "unidentified male white foreigner" who sports a marine "style of hair cut" and was between 25 and 30 years old. On October 13, The United States embassy expressed sympathy to Jennifer's family, saying they were going to investigate the possible involvement of an American citizen in her death.


It did not take long for the police to find out who the foreign man with Jennifer was that night. On October 13, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton was named as a suspect in the case and apprehended soon after. 


Joseph was a 19-year-old anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts and one of the thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the Philippines in 2014. He went to Ambyanz Nightlife Club with fellow marines, Sergeant Daniel Pulido, Lance Corporal Bennett Dahl and Corporal Christopher Miller.


Immediately following his arrest, Joseph was detained at military headquarters located in Quezon City, Metro Manila, guarded by both U.S. and Philippine troops. Curiously, Joseph was first questioned by the United States Naval Criminal Investigative Service instead of the Philippine police. The Marine Corps also hired an attorney to represent him and took responsibility for all his legal fees.


The autopsy report was released on October 15, 2014, stating that Jennifer died "due to asphyxia by drowning." 


The investigators had recovered condoms from the bathroom floor; semen inside was DNA tested, and it matched Joseph Pemberton but not Jennifer Laude. In addition, the marine’s fingerprints were found on one condom and a condom wrapper. Joseph's DNA was also discovered on Jennifer's genitalia, even though he said they only had oral sex.


Satisfied with all the evidence and witness reports, the Olongapo City Prosecutor's Office of the Philippine Department of Justice charged Joseph Pemberton with murder on December 15, 2014, in front of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74. The prosecutors who handled the preliminary investigation decided to file a murder case against Joseph because of "the presence of treachery, cruelty, and abuse of superior strength."


Soon after, Joseph asked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to dismiss the case against him, filing a 33-page petition for review. Part of the plea read:


"Not only is the assailed resolution full of logical leaps and unwarranted conclusions, it also disregarded the fundamental principles pertaining to treachery as a qualifying circumstance in the crime of murder."


Joseph's defence also said, for example, that cruelty is only present when the victim's other injuries or wounds are inflicted deliberately by an offender, which are not necessary for the killing of the victim:


"Further, the victim must be alive when the other injuries or wounds were inflicted."


Joseph's lawyers tried their best to argue against the prosecution's claims of the presence of treachery, cruelty, and abuse of superior strength in Jennifer's death by presenting each charge and disputing it. But in the end, the appeal was unsuccessful.


At Joseph's February 23, 2015 arraignment, the Olongapo City court pleaded not guilty on his behalf, as he refused to enter a plea. After pre-trial hearings on February 27, the murder trial began on March 16 and then, Joseph spoke up and entered a not guilty plea. However, he did admit to strangling Jennifer that night. He claimed he had done so to protect himself. Joseph explained that Jennifer had not told him that she was transgender and he felt deceived after the truth came out. The two had been in bed, and after the discovery, Joseph said he pushed Jennifer away, causing her to fall off the bed.


Afterward, Joseph claimed that Jennifer slapped him and a physical altercation followed. He choked her in a headlock until she stopped moving before dragging her to the shower to revive her. Joseph claimed Jennifer was still breathing at this point. Thinking she was unconscious but alive, he decided to leave before her friends returned and ganged up on him.


Lawyer Rowena Flores, who represented Joseph Pemberton, said that he felt he had been raped. Jennifer was a sex worker who had deceived Joseph, a clean-cut church-going man who had never been involved in a fight. The defense even said they would present evidence that raises the possibility that someone else killed Jennifer. However, Marine lance corporal Jairn Michael Rose, who went out with Joseph that night, told the court that the defendant later confided on their ship that he had attacked Jennifer after finding out she was transgender when she undressed. Joseph had said:


"I think I killed a he/she."


Joseph later denied ever saying this, however. 


Jennifer's family and her fiancé, Marc, did not believe Joseph's claims of Jennifer not telling him she was assigned male at birth. According to them, Jennifer was always very open and transparent about being transgender. Marc said that Jennifer had told him almost immediately. So why would Jennifer have taken the risk?


On top of that, Jennifer's family said they had been offered 21 million pesos ($468,000) in exchange for their approval to lower Joseph's charge from murder to homicide. In the Philippines, a murder conviction carries a 40-year sentence, while being found guilty of homicide, will cost you 20 years behind bars. The family allegedly denied the offer, as Julita told reporters:


"No amount of money could pay for the years I spent raising my child. What they did to my child was gruesome. Just because we are poor doesn't mean we can't fight for justice."


In turn, Joseph's legal team insisted they had not offered any money to Jennifer's family. Lawyer Benjamin Tolosa said:


"It has been insinuated the demand came from us, and that's absolutely false. It's contrary to what happened."


On top of that, according to Laude family lawyers, the prosecutor Emilie Fe de los Santos had taken Julita's statement as a sign that Jennifer's family was open to a plea bargain. Apparently, De los Santos had promoted the idea with defence attorneys, and she also said that although Jennifer's family rejected the plea bargain offer, it could be revived and introduced 'anytime' during the trial.


As a result, Jennifer's family submitted a letter to Department of Justice Secretary Leila De Lima requesting the assignment of a new prosecutor in the case. In the letter, they stated that De los Santos was uncooperative with the family's private lawyers—for example, she had barred attorney Harry Roque from the trial and all pre-trial proceedings:


"De los Santos said that Roque could only represent the Laude family in determining how much the defense should pay for the civil aspect of the case and that the victim's relatives could not serve as witnesses in the criminal case as they were not at the crime scene."


Jennifer's family said that de los Santos' acts were a violation of their constitutional rights to choose their own legal team to represent them:


"We have the right under the Constitution to choose our own lawyer in whatever cases we face. This is why we don't understand why the current public prosecutor does not allow our lawyer to defend us and make sure justice for the killing of Jennifer Laude would be served. The trial has started, but we are deeply concerned. We will only feel secure once we see our lawyer working well with the public prosecutors in defending our real interests to attain justice."


Nevertheless, on December 1, 2015, fourteen months after Jennifer's death, the Olongapo Regional Trial Court found Joseph Pemberton guilty of homicide, not murder. According to the court, Jennifer's alleged decision not to reveal her gender identity was a mitigating circumstance. They said that the killing of Jennifer ‘amounted only to homicide and did not meet the standards for murder’. Pemberton, in the court's view, acted out of…


"…passion and obfuscation" and "in the heat of passion, he arm-locked the deceased, and dunked her head in the toilet." 


In the end, Joseph was sentenced only to 6 to 12 years in prison. The Laude family's attorney, Harry Roque, firmly disagreed with the court decision, saying:


"It is not right that these mitigating circumstances showed his bigotry towards a transgender woman and that the bigotry itself was the reason he killed her."


Needless to say, Julita was not happy either as he believed her daughter’s death was no accident, but a cold-blooded murder. Still, she said:


"I am very thankful. I am not content with the 6 to 12 years imprisonment, although the important thing is that he will be jailed. My daughter did not die in vain, because Pemberton will be jailed."


The court also ordered Joseph to pay Jennifer's family 50,000 pesos for civil indemnities, 4,320,000 pesos for loss of earning capacity, 155,250 pesos for funeral and burial expenses, 50,000 pesos for moral damages, and 30,000 pesos for exemplary damage—totalling up to $87500.

Speaking in front of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court, Kabataan Partylist Representitive, Terry Ridon said:


"For now, the court has ordered that Pemberton be temporarily imprisoned in New Bilibid Prison, yet there is a caveat: This is subject to the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the agreement between Manila and Washington. Therefore, there remains the possibility that the VFA may again snag another convicted criminal from being penalized under the full extent of Philippine laws. Such a caveat reminds us of the case of Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, who was able to escape like a thief in the night from the clutches of Philippine laws back in 2005. This must not happen again."


In addition Bayan Muna Representitive Carlos Isagani Zarate said:


"He should be committed immediately to National Bilibid Prison just like any other convicted criminal; no more special treatment to a criminal like him. It will be a pyrrhic victory and his conviction is an empty one if he continues to be coddled by the United States while the government does nothing."


Joseph Pemberton was only the second U.S. service member in living memory to be convicted of a felony by a Philippine court. Daniel Smith was convicted of raping Suzette Nicolas – whom he met at a nightclub in Olongapo – by a Makati regional trial court in 2005. He was held briefly in a Philippine jail but was soon spirited away by U.S. authorities with the assistance of Phillipine officials before he could be transferred to the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa. Suzette later recanted her accusation, Daniel was acquitted and returned home.


So, Joseph Pemberton's conviction was seen as a major victory in the eyes of human rights advocates. For a long time, they have been fighting to hold American service members accountable for their violent acts against Filipina women. The U.S. military's 120 years presence had played a big part in fuelling the country's sex industry. So just maybe, things were now turning in the right direction. The secretary-general of the Philippine human rights organization Karapatan Cristina Palabay said just because someone was not in a Philippine prison, it did not mean that the crime did not take place:


"There are many forces trying to undermine the testimonies of the victims, or the witnesses or their families. I still really believe, in the context of the Philippines, no woman would claim that she was raped when she was not."


In Joseph Pemberton's case, some elements pointed to ongoing corruption and special treatment of US military offenders. Instead of going to the New Bilibid Prison – where he was ordered by a judge – Pemberton was incarcerated at the military headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo, guarded by US Marines as they refused to turn over custody of the convict to the Philippine authorities. The New Bilibid Prison would have definitely been a more uncomfortable place for Joseph with its 26,000 convicted men sleeping in crowded cell blocks. Temperatures that can reach over 100 degrees in the summer and disease festers. But the Visiting Forces Agreement—the 1999 legal framework that governs many aspects of the United States military presence in the Philippines—grants the United States privileges toward determining where convicted American personnel will be detained. And for that reason, Pemberton was moved to Camp Aguinaldo where he was housed in an air-conditioned cell fashioned from a shipping container.


There he remained until September 2, 2020. That day, branch 74 of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court granted Joseph Pemberton's partial motion of reconsideration—meaning he was released from prison. According to Judge Roline Ginez-Abalde, Joseph had already served a jail sentence of ten years, one month, and ten days based on his accumulated Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA). GCTA allows for a reduction of sentences of persons deprived of liberty, depending on how well they abide by rules and regulations inside prison.


Jennifer's family disagreed with the decision, saying:


"Pemberton, who lives comfortably and only his liberty is restricted, cannot reasonably and justifiably claim good conduct."


Then, just five days after his release, on September 7, President Rodrigo Duterte granted Pemberton an absolute pardon – seemingly wholly forgetting that he had promised Jennifer's family that the convicted murderer would not be released during his presidency.


Virginia Suarez said they knew something was going on almost two weeks before the President's announcement. On August 25, Joseph Pemberton's attorney Rowena Flores met with Laude's older sister Marilou to hand over a check for roughly $95,000 in civil liability damages. The next day, Virginia learned that Pemberton's legal team had quietly withdrawn his appeal from the Philippines' Supreme Court in June. Why would a person in prison do that unless they knew they were getting out soon anyway? 


Curiously, Jennifer's family's former attorney Harry Roque, who just a few days earlier condemned Joseph Pemberton's release, now justified it, saying:


"Absolute pardon, meaning to say Pemberton can walk free. There is no longer any issue over if he is entitled to GCTA if the law will apply because he was not imprisoned in the national penitentiary. The President erased the punishment imposed on Pemberton."


Nevertheless, Jennifer's family was shocked by the President's decision, and it sparked outrage in the LGBT community. Soon after the pardon was announced, the hashtag #JusticeForJenniferLaude landed on the top trending spot in social media. Many were saying that President Duerte's decision was "a grave injustice to the Filipino people," "a travesty of Philippine sovereignty and democracy," "a mockery of [the] judiciary and legal system," and "a shameless sell-out." It seemed like the President placed "interests of the U.S. government above the Filipino people's demands for justice and accountability." Julita Cabillan said:


"It would have been okay if the President did not give absolute pardon, so that at least we could have had a chance – we were only asking for 10 years as payment for the life of my child. That's a very short period of imprisonment compared to the lost life of my child."


A spokeswoman for the LGBTQ+ organization Bahaghari National, Rey Valmores-Salinas also commented on President Rodrigo Duterte's decision:

"It tells us how, even in our own country, if you are of a particular gender, if you are a transgender woman, your life matters less. This is about how we are the people that are silenced, that are raped, that are killed first because we are the ones that society listens to last."


Some also noted that while Joseph's pardon may have been an anti-trans reaction by Duterte, it also could have been just a strategic move considering the Philippines' relationship with the United States.


The United States had had a significant military presence at a series of bases across the country for over a decade. According to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, during that time, Filipina women and girls experienced a lot of violence at the hands American service members. But due to a Status of Forces Agreement, military personnel were protected from prosecution by Philippine courts. Then, in 1991, a volcanic eruption and the end of the Cold War, in addition to years of protests from anti-base campaigners, ended America's ongoing military presence—but just for a while. The U.S Military returned eight years later under a new Visiting Forces Agreement (or VFA) —that same agreement Duterte wanted to now terminate. And on February 11, 2020, he formally announced to the United States embassy in Manila that he was ending the pact. However, by November 2020, negotiations were ongoing, as Duterte said:


"To enable us to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense."


So, around the time of Joseph Pemberton's pardon in September 2020, a lot was going on between the Philippines and the United States. And according to specialists, Duterte might have tried to use Joseph Pemberton's release to benefit him and further his own agenda. It is a completely different story how the decision actually affected the Philippines’ position in the renegotiation of the VFA, particularly on criminal jurisdiction and any future agreements with the US.


In addition, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, John Schaus, says Joseph's case was always handled following the Visiting Forces Agreement—which ensures that the two countries have a predetermined process if a service member is arrested and charged with a crime. John said:


"Whether or not he should be incarcerated longer or has served an adequate amount of time — the Philippine court system came up with a judgment about that, based on its own internal standards, and I think that's exactly what the Visiting Forces Agreement would call for."


In the middle of turmoil caused by Joseph's release, his lawyer Rowena Flores claimed that the US Marine Lance Cpl. had always wanted to apologise to Jennifer's family, saying:


"You know he has always wanted to apologise to the Laude family, except that he had no telephone. He had no way of communicating with them; he doesn't know the email address or whether he could even send such kind of letter. Now that he has been pardoned, he does want to get in touch with them."


However, according to the Laude family's lawyer, Joseph would have plenty of possibilities to ask for forgiveness if he really wanted to. Attorney Virginia Suarez said: 


"All that time he was in prison, he never even got to apologise? You know her mother, that's one of her sentiments for so long, she said, you didn't even apologise for what you did. But if he does apologise, I hope it's real. I hope he learned something from his 5-year imprisonment. And I hope he finds peace in his mind because of the crime he committed."


Joseph himself has said he hopes he could turn back time and wishes these things never happened. Allegedly, Joseph wishes he had the words to express the depth of his sorrow and regret. Flores said:


"He would like to become a better person for the rest of his life… He would like to set off and do good things so he can be a useful member of the society and to clear his name."


Reportedly, at the time, Joseph was hoping to go back to school and perhaps take a college degree in philosophy—he still has a life ahead of him, unlike Jennifer, who did not get a second chance.


During his time in prison, Joseph was still an American Marine, and over those years he received $160,000 from the American government, more than enough for him to start a new life in the United States.


After six years in detention at a special facility inside the Philippine military headquarters, Joseph Pemberton was deported from the Philippines at 9:14 AM on Sunday, September 13, 2020. He was escorted to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) by personnel from the military and the U.S. embassy. Joseph was then brought to Camp Smith in Hawaii, where The Marine Corps was to take appropriate administrative actions—however, it is unknown if Joseph was demoted or was given a less-than-honourable discharge.


Afterward, the Laude family's lawyer Virginia Suarez stated:


"May he find peace of mind. Hopefully, he has learned from all these the value of life and dignity regardless of gender and nationality. Jennifer's case has ended."


Jennifer's murder case may have ended, but her legacy still lives. Transgender rights activists and the left-wing Bagong Alyansang Makabayan have protested against the special treatment of U.S. troops in the Philippines, stating their own people are often treated as a second-class citizens—especially if they are part of the LGBTQ+ community. A columnist for The Philippine Star wrote that Jennifer's case provides an "opportunity to further gender sensitivity, promote LGBT rights, and encourage tolerance and acceptance”.


Many condemn the fact that Joseph Pemberton's sentence was actually shorter because of the claim Jennifer had lied to him about her identity as a trans woman. However, that is not an excuse to kill another human being. And yet, the same defense has been used repeatedly against LGBTQ people, and it has often let murderers off the hook.


After his fiance's death, Marc Sueselbeck became a trans advocate and activist in his home country of Germany. Back in 2014, Marc was barred from entering the Philippines after he scaled the gates of the headquarters of AFP to get to Joseph Pemberton. He later apologised for his behaviour and appealed to Philippine authorities to allow him to return to the country and visit Jennifer's grave on March 15, their supposed wedding date:


"I am at a point where no option is given to me. I am aware that I might miss that date to attend her grave in person…but I at least need to be able to tell her that I will be there at her side soon."


Unfortunately, by the time Marc said this, he had not heard back from authorities, and it is unknown if he ever made it to Jennifer's grave on time. Marc has also revealed a disturbing detail after Jennifer's murder, saying the two had visited the same hotel together where she later died:


"I can tell you one thing. I have been with her in that room, two times checking in same way they did. We did it not just to have fun. We checked in because they have many TV channels, and we could watch German soccer in exactly that room."


Marc was quoted saying that whatever happened in that room, only Joseph and Jennifer know, but he always loved and trusted her. When it comes to Joseph, Marc was never not concerned about his fate:


"If [Pemberton] dies from cancer tomorrow or will live 100 years and have 10 children, I simply don't care. For me, that trial is about Jennifer's honour…to make up for the degrading, brutish, beastly death she had to suffer, stripping all humanity from her. At least in that way, her human rights and that of her family have to be respected."


However, many still feel that all the respect was forgotten when Joseph was pardoned—it was like a slap across the face of every woman and member of the LGBTQ+ community on the island. And that feeling only worsened as the Visiting Forces Agreement was reinstated on July 30, 2021, after an order of President Duterte. Rey Valmores-Salinas says that is where the real issue lies:


"If you call for justice for Jennifer, that’s never going to happen for so long as the

Visiting Forces Agreement stands. That’s never going to happen for so long as any U.S. soldier stands on Philippine soil."


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