Monday, March 17, 2008

Telltale Signs/ The Saga of Flor and Jennifer

Telltale Signs/ The Saga of Flor and Jennifer
Rodel E. Rodis, March 17, 2008

March 17, 1995 will be mournfully remembered as the day when Singapore executed Filipino domestic worker Flor Contemplacion for allegedly murdering Filipina domestic worker, Delia Maga. Filipinos recall that just before the date of her execution, two witnesses came forward with evidence that Contemplacion was innocent and that it was Maga’s employer who strangled her in a fit of rage after finding his 4-year old epileptic son accidentally drowned in the bath tub because Maga had left him alone, unaware of his condition.

Although Contemplacion, the 42-year old mother of four, had neither the motive, means or opportunity to kill Maga, Singapore police nonetheless made her the sole murder suspect and convicted her based on her torture-induced confession. The authorities refused to consider any new evidence that might contradict their convenient wrap-up of the case.

When Contemplacion’s coffin arrived in Manila, thousands of Filipinos waited at the airport to honor her as a symbol of injustice and 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, 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 decided to leave her businessman husband and their home in Walnut Creek, California to return to the Philippines with their son. After arriving in Manila, however, she called 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 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 succeeded in convincing her to return back to their Walnut Creek home, promising that he would never hit her again. Jennifer made plans to return back to California with her son but, at the last minute, decided to leave her son in Cavite with relatives, just in case.

Larsen brought Jennifer to the airport and assured her he would join her in California in a few days. After Jennifer’s plane took off, however, Larsen went straight to the US Embassy to inform the FBI that a wanted fugitive would be stopping over 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 brought to the Honolulu city jail to await 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 Contemplacion and overseas Filipinos. Responding to the popular outrage, President Ramos directed Philippine consuls all over the world to check the jails of their jurisdictions to find Philippine citizens in need of government assistance.

Following the directive of her government, the Philippine Consul General in Hawaii visited the Honolulu prison and personally learned of Jennifer's plight. By then, she had been in jail for a few weeks awaiting extradition to California with bail set at $500,000. Jennifer recounted to the Consul how she had been brought before a magistrate in prison garb, with chains on both her ankles and wrists.

The Hawaii Consul contacted her counterpart in San Francisco who then asked me to represent Jennifer pro bono after she had been extradited to Walnut Creek. In an April 24, 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported on the case, 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.”

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.

In the course of the 10-day jury trial in September of 1995, Jennifer recounted how she had been brought to live with her then 34-year old husband when she was 17 and how he had began beating her after they were married and she had given birth to James Jr. Her husband stoutly denied her accusations of domestic violence.

An element of the crime of child abduction (California Penal Code Sec. 278), I reminded 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. 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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