Philippine court orders early release of US serviceman in gruesome killing of transgender

MANILA – A Philippine local court has ordered the early release of a US serviceman serving a 10-year jail term for the brutal death in 2014 of a Filipino transgender.

Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, 25, had served just five years in jail, but a judge on Tuesday (Sept 1) ruled that five years could be shaved off his sentence on account of his “good behaviour” while in detention.

The judge added that Pemberton had already paid his victim’s family close to five million pesos (S$140,000) in restitution.

Pemberton was found guilty of homicide for killing Mr Jeffrey Laude, then 26, in a drunken rage inside a motel in Olongapo city, near a former US naval base in Subic Bay, north of the capital Manila.

Court records showed that on Oct 12, 2014, Pemberton, while off duty after participating in a joint military exercise off Subic, met Mr Laude, who was dressed as a schoolgirl, inside a bar at Olongapo’s red-light district. They later agreed to head to a nearby motel.

As they were having sex, the marine turned violent when he realised Mr Laude – who also went by the name “Jennifer” – had male genitals.

In his testimony, Pemberton admitted arm-locking Mr Laude’s head, causing him to black out. He then dragged Mr Laude to a toilet to revive him.

Pemberton’s lawyers argued that Mr Laude was still breathing when he left the place.They suggested, based on DNA found on Mr Laude’s neck, that someone else who was after money might have finished Mr Laude off.

The judge said, however, that the defence failed to substantiate this theory.

A lawyer claiming to represent Mr Laude’s family asked the court to reconsider Pemberton’s early release, saying there was no proof of his “good behaviour” or “supervised rehabilitation”.

But Pemberton’s lawyer said Mr Laude’s mother and sister agreed not to impede his early release after civil damages were settled last month (August).

The motion for reconsideration could have been filed without their consent, the lawyer said.

The case had struck a nerve in the Philippines as questions over custody of US servicemen accused of crimes had turned into jurisdictional disputes that sparked heated debates on sovereignty.

Pemberton had been held alone inside a special jail at a military camp in Manila, an arrangement that riled nationalists who claimed the American, on account of his nationality, was being accorded special treatment.

Mr Harry Roque, who had served as a lawyer for Mr Laude’s family and is now a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said Pemberton’s early release “proves that despite the President’s independent foreign policy, Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials”.

Pemberton’s case once again tested provisions of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), specifically those on jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes while off-duty in the Philippines.

Mr Duterte sought to scrap that pact in February, but changed his mind in June, noting the US’ help to the Philippines’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The VFA’s provisions on custody were first tested nearly 15 years ago, when another American serviceman, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, was accused of raping Filipino Suzette Nicolas inside a moving van in Subic as his fellow marines cheered him on.

The Philippines turned over custody of Smith to the US embassy, sparking outrage among anti-American nationalists.

In December 2006, a lower court sentenced Smith to 40 years in prison, but he was kept at the US embassy instead of a local jail till April 2009, when an appellate court acquitted him after Ms Nicolas recanted her allegations against him.

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