Saturday, March 22, 2008

Flor's Misfortune, Jennifer's Redemption

Flor R. Contemplacion, a 42- year old Filipina domestic worker mother of four, was executed in Singapore on March 17, 1995 for the murders of domestic worker Delia Maga and her four year old ward, Nicholas Huang. Just before her execution, however, two Filipino witnesses came forward with evidence that Huang's father framed Contemplacion after killing Maga in a fit of rage when he found his epileptic son accidentally drowned after Maga left him in the bath tub, unaware of his condition.

Although Contemplacion had neither the motive, means or opportunity to kill Maga and her ward, Singapore police managed to secure her conviction on the basis of her torture-induced confession (see film reenactment below). The authorities refused to consider any new evidence that might contradict their convenient wrap-up of the case and proceeded with her public hanging.

(Nora Aunor portrays Flor Contemplacion in the movie adaptation of Contemplacion’s life and death. Scene here shows the reenactment of her torture by Singapore police.)

When Contemplacion’s coffin arrived in Manila, thousands of Filipinos waited at the airport to honor her as a victim of injustice and as a symbol of the hardships and sacrifices of overseas Filipino workers.

At the time of Contemplacion’s execution, Jennifer Drake Larsen, the granddaughter of an American serviceman, was living in Cavite province with her American husband, James Larsen Sr., and their 3-year old son, James Jr. She could not have imagined how Contemplacion’s death would affect her.

Jennifer Larsen had been a victim of domestic violence in the US when she fled her businessman husband and their home in Walnut Creek, California and returned to the Philippines with their son. After arriving in Manila, however, she phoned her husband. “You can join us here if you want,” she told him, “because I know you can’t hurt me here.” She gave him the phone number where he could reach her if he accepted the invitation.

After Jennifer and her son had been living in Cavite for a few months, her husband accepted her invitation, flew to Manila, and joined them. What Jennifer knew was that she would be safe in her home turf. What she did not know was that Larsen had filed a criminal complaint for child abduction against her in Walnut Creek and that a warrant of arrest had been issued for her.

Larsen lived with Jennifer and their son in Cavite for several months until he convinced his wife to return back to their Walnut Creek home, promising that he would never hit her again. Jennifer agreed but, in case Larsen reneged on his promise, decided to leave her son in Cavite with relatives and to just return to California by herself.

Larsen was disappointed with Jennifer’s decision but still brought Jennifer to the Manila airport to see her off. He had to take care of some business matters in Manila, he said, and he would join her home shortly. As soon as Jennifer’s plane took off, however, Larsen went straight to the US Embassy to inform the FBI that a wanted fugitive would soon be arriving in Honolulu on a PAL flight bound for San Francisco.

When Jennifer landed in Honolulu, two FBI agents were waiting to arrest her for felony child abduction. She was handcuffed and locked up at the Honolulu city jail for an indefinite period awaiting extradition to California.

In the aftermath of Flor Contemplacion’s execution, there was widespread condemnation of the Philippine government’s failure to do more to help overseas Filipinos like Contemplacion. Responding to the popular outrage, President Ramos directed all Philippine consuls abroad to check the jails of their jurisdictions to seek out and help Philippine citizens in need of government assistance.

Following the directive of her government, the Philippine Consul General in Hawaii, Solita Aguirre, personally visited the Honolulu prison for the first time and found out about Jennifer. Consul Aguirre learned that she had been in jail for a few weeks awaiting extradition to California with bail set at $500,000 and that she had been brought before a magistrate in prison garb, with chains on both her ankles and wrists.

Consul Aguirre contacted San Francisco Consul Tessie Marzan to lend assistance to Jennifer. After Jennifer was extradited to Walnut Creek, Consul Marzan contacted me and asked me to represent Jennifer pro bono. In an April 24, 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jennifer defiantly declared: “They could tell me that I could spend the rest of my life in jail, but I don't care, I am not going to let him have custody of my child.”

When I visited Jennifer at the Martinez detention facility, she expressed her willingness to sacrifice her life for her son. I assured her that she would get her son back. After Jennifer had been confined for nearly two months in jail in May of 1995, I worked out a deal with the court for Jennifer to be released on her own recognizance if her son was returned back to his father in Walnut Creek within seven days. Jennifer reluctantly agreed to the deal and asked her sister to fly to Manila to pick up her son and turn him over to his father, which she did on the 7th day, just a few hours before the deal would have expired. As agreed, Jennifer was released from custody without bail.

But the District Attorney refused to dismiss the charge or to even offer a plea bargain to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor with no jail time. The D.A. wanted Jennifer to go to state prison.

During the 10-day jury trial held in September of 1995, Jennifer recounted how businessman James Larsen went to her family’s home in Florida and convinced her parents that she would be better off living with him in his beautiful home in Walnut Creek than with her poor family in a trailer in Florida.

Jennifer was only 17 when she moved in with then 34 year old James Larsen. The following year, when she turned 18, Jennifer married James and gave birth to James Jr. The physical beatings began then, she said, especially when her husband was drunk.

Jennifer did not have family in California and did not know how or who to report her husband’s abuse. When she complained to her parents, they assumed that she had done something wrong to make her husband angry. Just be patient, they counseled her, and follow what her husband wants her to do.

After one beating, she told her husband that she would leave him. Larsen then took out her son’s US passport and tore it to pieces in front of her, warning her that if she ever left him, she would never see her son again.

So one day, in May of 1994, feigning a trip to the dentist, Jennifer went to the airport with her Philippine passport and her son’s new US passport and boarded a PAL plane for Manila.

In his testimony, Larsen denied all allegations of abuse and portrayed Jennifer as an unreasonable and spoiled wife who did not appreciate all that he had given her.

An element of the crime of child abduction (California Penal Code Sec. 278), I told the jury in closing argument, is the intent to “detain or conceal the child from a lawful custodian”. Jennifer contacted Larsen as soon as she landed in Manila and invited him to join them and he, in fact, joined them. Where was the concealment? The jury deliberated for a few hours and returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty.

After the trial, Jennifer regained custody of her son.

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