Murder raps filed vs US Marine Pemberton
OLONGAPO CITY—“It’s murder,” Chief City Prosecutor Emily Fe de los Santos announced on Monday, after filing murder charges against a US Marine accused of killing a Filipino transgender woman, in a case that has fanned anti-American sentiment in the Philippines.
De los Santos told a televised briefing that prosecutors had found “probable cause” against Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton and decided that he used “treachery, abuse of superior authority and cruelty” against his alleged victim, Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude.
“You can see the kind of cruelty [Laude] endured, the injuries she sustained,” De los Santos said. “We believe we have a strong case.”
Pemberton will not be allowed to post bail, she said. Murder is punishable by up to 40 years in jail.
Laude, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was found dead on Oct. 12 in the bathroom of a cheap motel in the port city of Olongapo.
Pemberton, who had just finished taking part in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo, had checked into the motel with Laude and was the last person seen with her, police said.
Laude was found half-naked, her head stuck in the toilet bowl, and she had marks of strangulation on her neck, according to police.
She died from “asphyxia by drowning,” according to a police autopsy.
“This is not an ordinary murder. This is heinous because she was beaten up,” Laude family lawyer Harry Roque told reporters. “She was drowned, her neck was broken, she was beaten up and she had bite marks.”
The case was raffled off to Judge Roline Jabalde of the 74th Branch of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court on Monday afternoon.
Laude’s family asked the court to order the transfer of Pemberton to Olongapo City when it issues a warrant for his arrest.
De los Santos said the court would decide where to hold Pemberton in the city.
The arrest warrant may be issued this week, she said.
Pemberton is detained at the Joint US Military Assistance Group compound in Camp Aguinaldo, headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in Quezon City.
US gov’t cooperation
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it was expecting “full cooperation” from the US government now that Pemberton had been charged in court.
“In accordance with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), we look forward to the full cooperation of the US government in ensuring that justice is secured for Jeffrey ‘Jennifer’ Laude,” DFA spokesperson Charles Jose said in a statement issued after the announcement of the filing of charges against Pemberton.
Jose said the investigation conducted by the Office of the City Prosecutor was done with “all deliberate speed.”
“We now await the decision of the court on the issue of probable cause and for the next steps to proceed,” he said.
The US Embassy in Manila had no immediate comment.
Besides the police investigative report, the preliminary investigation also reviewed the report and documents submitted by the US Navy’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
Pemberton, through his Filipino lawyers, waived his right to submit a statement to counter the charges during the preliminary investigation.
He did not appear in the hearings called by the city prosecutor. His lawyers represented him at the hearings.
Pemberton, aged 19 at the time of the killing, had asked prosecutors to downgrade the murder charge to homicide, which carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
But in their resolution, the prosecutors said treachery was apparent because evidence showed Pemberton “[strangled] Laude from behind.”
“Obviously, in that position, [Laude] was deprived of the opportunity to defend herself,” the prosecutors said.
They said Pemberton was a skilled boxer, as shown by a report submitted by the NCIS resident agency in Manila.
“Although death has forever sealed [Laude’s] lips, the abrasions, bruises and contusions found on her body tell us how greatly she suffered in the hands of her attacker,” the prosecutors said.
Pemberton, they said, used “excessive force” to kill Laude.
“He is a US Marine serviceman who is far stronger than [Laude], as evidenced by the fact that he singlehandedly choked her with his arm,” they said. “[Laude] was beaten black and blue.”
Cruelty is one of the qualifying circumstances in the murder charge, the prosecutors said, citing an enumeration of Laude’s injuries in the police forensic report.
“[Blood clots were] found on her scalp, her upper lip was cut and bruised, there were abrasions and contusions on her arms and legs,” they said.
Appeal for public support
Laude’s sisters Marilou and Michelle pleaded for public support.
“[We hope] the public and the media will join us in closely monitoring the case,” Marilou said.
In November, the prosecutors got DNA samples from Pemberton, but the samples did not match DNA in two condoms found in the motel room.
At one point in the preliminary investigation, Laude’s camp sought the inhibition of De los Santos, alleging that the chief prosecutor showed “despotism and hostility” toward Roque.
De los Santos shrugged off the complaints and proceeded with the investigation.
On Monday, Roque said the Laude family’s lawyers were willing to work with state lawyers in prosecuting Pemberton.
“We are ready to fight alongside [the] prosecutors,” he said, stressing that they should be treated as “equal officers of the court in making sure that justice [is] done.”
Laude’s death sparked street protests and the public outcry pressured the administration of President Aquino to seek the transfer of Pemberton’s detention from a US warship to the AFP headquarters.
Under the 1998 VFA governing US troops when they are in the Philippines, Filipino courts have jurisdiction over cases involving American soldiers accused of crimes.
But the agreement also allows suspects to remain in US custody.
President Aquino has said the case should not sour relations with the United States, the Philippines’ most important diplomatic and military ally.
“Name me any place that doesn’t have any crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don’t think so,” Aquino said in October.
Following formal charges by prosecutors, the Olongapo court that has jurisdiction over the case will decide whether there are enough grounds for the accused to stand trial, although there is no timetable for this process.
The case is the second major test of the VFA.
In 2006 US Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was sentenced to 40 years in jail after being found guilty of raping a Filipino woman a year earlier.
Smith, however, walked free in 2009 after his accuser recanted her statement, prompting the Court of Appeals to acquit him. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño in Manila, AP and AFP