Filipino community organisations have expressed outrage at the Australian judicial system for its handling of Mhelody Bruno’s death.
Mhelody Bruno died from injuries sustained during an act of erotic asphyxiation in Wagga Wagga on the morning of the 22 September 2019. She was strangled from behind by her then-boyfriend Rian Ross Toyer, who attempted CPR and called emergency services after noticing she had fallen unconscious. In September 2020, Toyer pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was handed a non-custodial sentence of 500-hours of community service, enraging Bruno’s family and friends.
The sentence was yesterday amended to encompass 22 months jail time, after the District Court judge who handed down the original non-custodial sentence re-opened the case.
In opposition to the initial judicial response, a “Justice for Mhelody Bruno” protest and vigil was held at Town Hall on 29 March. The event was organised by the Filipino youth organisation Anakbayan, and Migrante, another prominent Filipino diaspora organisation.
The first speaker of the protest was Anakbayan’s Carielyn Tunion, who described the handling of Bruno’s death as a “disgusting minimisation of fatal violence.” Anakbayan argues that Bruno’s death was the result of a combination of systemic transphobia, racism and sexism ingrained in Australian society.
Tunion was also sceptical about whether Bruno’s death was an accident, expressing disbelief that Toyer was able to strangle her to death unknowingly. “Let’s consider how much it would actually take to choke a person to death.”
Other groups present were radical queer collective Pride in Protest, Filipino women’s activist group Gabriela Australia, the Philippines Australia Union Link (PAUL), Migrante, and the Filipino progressive alliance organisation Bayan Australia.
All speakers condemned NSW Police and the judicial process. Jane Corpuz-Brock of PAUL argued that the Wagga Wagga District Court had given undue weight to Toyer’s testimony. She also voiced outrage that police had named their investigation “Strike Force Lamson,” as it was a pejorative reference to anal sex.
All speakers were similarly critical of the Filipino government’s response, which has, so far, agreed with Judge Gordon Lerve’s finding that Bruno’s choking was a consensual sex-act.
According to one of the speakers, Ayah Buenaflor of Gabriela Australia, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte may be reluctant to probe the matter since the Australian government provides his regime with military aid.
Mhelody Bruno was a 25-year-old call centre worker originally from the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Her older brother Leonel described her as the bread-winner of the family, as she often sent money back to her relatives while working in Manila. At the time of her death, she had been residing in Wagga Wagga on a tourist visa. She was lured to Wagga Wagga by an Australian friend but PAUL suspect she was actually being sex-trafficked without realising it.
According to the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, Bruno had met Toyer on the social dating app Grindr and the pair had been dating for roughly three weeks before the fatal choking. Mhelody was set to return to the Philippines within a week before her death. The pair had been in an argument the night before the choking regarding Bruno’s continued use of Grindr. Although consent towards the practice of choking was never verbalised, the court found that consent was physically implied and that Bruno had initiated the practice early on in the relationship.
Toyer was originally handed an Intensive Correction Order where he would serve no time in jail. However, upon realising that ICOs could not be applied to manslaughter cases, the court resentenced Toyer to 22 months in jail on 29 March.
Transgender people suffer disproportionately high levels of violence in Western countries. According to a survey by the Human Rights Campaign, a large US-based queer advocacy group, trans women of colour are particularly susceptible to violence and far more likely to be assaulted by a stranger than non-trans women.