The Regional Trial Court Branch 74’s order on Tuesday for the release of Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton drew protests from the family and lawyers of Jennifer Laude, who was found dead in a motel room in Olongapo city, northwest of Manila, after they met at a disco bar in October 2014.
Pemberton has been held six years of a maximum 10-year jail term, mostly in a compound jointly guarded by Philippine and American security personnel at the main military camp in metropolitan Manila. The place of detention was agreed to under the terms of the treaty allies’ Visiting Forces Agreement, although Laude’s family had demanded that Pemberton be held in an ordinary jail.
“I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton, who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who once served as the Laude family’s lawyer. “Laude’s death personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty.”
“The light penalty imposed on Pemberton proves that despite the president’s independent foreign policy, Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials in our country,” Roque said. Pemberton’s lawyer, Rowena Garcia Flores, said his detention was shortened by authorities under a Philippine law that also applies to Filipinos. If all of Pemberton’s good-conduct merits in jail were applied, “he’s already overstaying,” she said by phone.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the military will help Bureau of Corrections jail personnel release Pemberton once it receives the court order. In December 2015, a judge convicted Pemberton of homicide, not the more serious charge of murder as prosecutors sought.
The Olongapo court judge said at the time that she downgraded the charge because factors such as cruelty and treachery had not been proven. Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the country in 2014. 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 outside Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base.
Laude was later found dead, her head slumped in a toilet bowl in a motel room, where witnesses said she and Pemberton had checked in. A witness told investigators that Pemberton said he choked Laude after discovering she was transgender.
The killing reignited calls from left-wing groups and nationalists for an end to America’s military presence in the Philippines at a time when the U.S. was reasserting its role in Asia, and Manila had turned to Washington for support amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.