OLONGAPO, Philippines — A Philippine court on Tuesday convicted a U.S. Marine of killing a Filipino last year after he discovered she was a transgender woman in a hotel while he was on a break after participating in joint military exercises in the country.
Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton was convicted of homicide by first strangling Jennifer Laude and then dunking her head into a toilet bowl in the hotel they had checked into after meeting in a disco bar in October 2014 in Olongapo, a city northwest of Manila. He was sentenced to 6-12 years in jail and credited with time already spent in detention, said court clerk Gerry Gruspe.
The court also ordered Pemberton, who has been detained at a Philippine military camp for about a year, to pay Laude’s family 4.6 million pesos ($98,000) in damages.
Laude’s mother, Julita, said that while she was happy the verdict detailed everything that had transpired, she was not pleased with the length of the jail term because she had hoped Pemberton would be convicted of murder, a more serious crime than homicide.
“But the important thing is he will be jailed,” she said, crying. “My son’s life is not wasted.”
The Laude family’s private lawyer, Harry Roque, said that “this is a bittersweet victory because it is not murder,” adding that “if what he did isn’t cruelty, I don’t know what is.”
Witnesses had testified that Pemberton squeezed Laude’s neck, dragged her to the toilet and dunked her head into the bowl. Two of Pemberton’s U.S. Marine colleagues testified that Pemberton told them, “I think I killed a he/she.”
The judge said she downgraded the murder charge to homicide because conditions such as cruelty and treachery had not been proven.
The killing sparked anger in the Philippines and reignited calls by left-wing groups and nationalists for an end to America’s military presence in the country at a time when the U.S. is reasserting its dominance in Asia and Manila has turned to Washington for support amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.
Half a block from the court, dozens of left-wing protesters rejoiced after the verdict was announced by burning an effigy of Uncle Sam and yelling “Justice for Jennifer!” Police officers, fire trucks and iron railings were used to prevent them from getting closer to the courthouse.
Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in the joint exercises last year. He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercises and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a city known for its nightlife located outside Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base. At least two witnesses testified that Laude was a sex worker.
Pemberton and Laude left the bar and checked in together at a nearby hotel. About 30 minutes later, Pemberton walked out, leaving the room’s door ajar, according to hotel staff.
Pemberton testified in August that he had choked Laude during a fight that erupted when he discovered she was a transgender woman, but said she was still alive when he left her in a shower, according to his lawyer, Rowena Garcia Flores.
Lawyers for Laude’s family, however, said Laude was dead when Pemberton left her. Police have said that Laude had apparently been drowned in a toilet.
In the decision, Regional Trial Court Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde ordered Pemberton temporarily jailed at the New Bilibid Prison, a national penitentiary in suburban Muntinlupa City.
The judge said an agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines was ambiguous and failed to state in which facility within the Philippine military headquarters Pemberton would be detained and which government agency would have supervision. She ordered that he be brought to the national penitentiary, in accordance with local laws, until it is decided where he should be permanently held.
Pemberton’s lawyers made an impromptu appeal against him being brought to the national penitentiary. After meeting with the lawyers and government representatives, the judge allowed Pemberton to be detained for five days at the military headquarters pending a permanent detention site, said Roque, the Laudes’ lawyer.
The case has revived a debate over which government should have custody of U.S. military personnel who run afoul of local laws under a Visiting Forces Agreement the two allies signed in 1998.
The agreement, which allows U.S. forces to conduct military exercises in the Philippines, says that the Philippines can prosecute American service members, but that the U.S. has custody over them “from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”
However, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that convicted U.S. personnel must serve their sentences in the Philippines.
In a compromise last year, the U.S. agreed to have Pemberton detained in a compound at Philippine military headquarters in suburban Quezon City guarded by U.S. Marines with an outer ring of Filipino forces.
Left-wing activists and nationalist Filipinos have cited the custody provision of the VFA as proof that the accord was lopsided in favor of the U.S. and undermines the sovereignty of the Philippines, which was an American colony until 1946.