The Case of Jennifer Laude: a Filipino Trans Woman Allegedly Murdered By a U.S. Marine

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Trigger Warning: This story contains details about a sexual assault and murder.

On October 11, 2014, a hotel employee discovered the body of Filipino trans woman Jennifer Laude. Laude, who was 26, had come to the hotel with another trans woman, and Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine Private.

The three had met at a disco in Olongapo, a city northwest of Manila Bay, before checking into the hotel. Gelviro, who described Pemberton as drunk, but friendly, soon left. Pemberton left sometime after, as well

When the hotel employee discovered Laude’s body, her head was submerged in the bathroom toilet. A witness in the case alleges Pemberton told him he’d choked Laude from behind “for a couple of minutes” until she stopped moving, and then dragged her to the bathroom. The same witness, fellow Marine Jairn Michael Rose, quotes Pemberton as saying, “I think I called [Laude] a he/she,” after Laude’s death. “He/she” is a vicious transphobic slur, and Rose’s statement suggests Pemberton’s alleged act may have been an anti-trans hate crime.

This brutal crime made instant headlines worldwide, with LGBTQ activists talking about its anti-trans nature, and connecting it the worldwide epidemic of violence against trans women, and political observers commenting on the dark, imperialist overtones of a Filipino citizen being allegedly murdered by a U.S. military member stationed within her country. Since that time, maneuvers regarding the detention of Pemberton and efforts by his attorneys to block a trial for his alleged actions, have prevented the case from going forward, even while keeping it periodically in the news.

Pemberton was originally held aboard a U.S. warship, in accordance with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries. Outrage over that arrangement led to Pemberton’s being jointly held at a Filipino camp under U.S. guard. At Pemberton’s initial hearing a few weeks later, his attorney did not respond to the murder complaint, instead filing motions to clarify the charge, declare the absence of probable cause, and reduce the charge from murder to homicide.

This maneuver earned a sharp rebuke from prosecutors, who said, “We will rule on probable cause after we complete the process. Don’t teach us what to do. The bottom line is we will go on with the preliminary investigation.”

On December 15, the investigation complete, Pemberton was charged with murder. “We believe we have a strong case,” said prosecutor Emilie de los Santos in a televised statement. “It’s murder. It was aggravated by treachery, abuse of superior strength and cruelty.” Pemberton, who was denied bail, faces up to forty years in prison if convicted.

Following the charge, Pembleton’s legal team was granted a 60 day deferral during which they could review evidence–a procedure encoded in the VFA. At the close of this period, the Marine’s counsel asked the court to have his charges dropped, a request they denied on January 30. Pembleton’s lawyers argued the evidence was insufficient to proceed. The panel of prosecutors ruling on the matter, disagreed, however, saying, “If direct evidence is insisted upon under all circumstances, the guilt of vicious felons who committed heinous crimes in secret or in secluded places will be hard, if not impossible, to prove.”

Pemberton’s lawyers still have two maneuvers available to them: they can request that the Philippine Justice Department review its recent decision, and, if that is denied, they can proceed to the Court of Appeals.

It seems unlikely that the case will not be tried, however. Its gruesome details are well known, and are refreshed in the international press each time a pretrial ruling is issued. Likewise, the murder sparked a passionate response in the Philippines, with activists and even some elected officials calling for the government to dissolve the VFA and rethink its relationship with the U.S.

Given these factors, it seems fairly certain Pemberton will face his charges in court, where justice will be sought in the tragic death of Jennifer Laude, a woman murdered seemingly because of her gender identity–a type of ignorant, prejudiced hate that can not be extinguished too quickly.