US Marine Guilty in Politically Sensitive Philippine Murder Case

US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who drowned a Filipino transgender in an Olongapo motel toilet in October of 2014 and generated international tensions over a visiting forces agreement between the United States and the Philippines, was judged guilty "beyond reasonable doubt" of homicide on Dec. 1.

Pemberton, then 19, picked up the 26-year-old transgender Jefferey "Jennifer" Laude at the Ambyanz disco under the apparent impression that he was picking up a woman. About half an hour after he had put up at the nearby Celzone Lodge, witnesses saw Pemberton run out of the motel, leaving the door ajar.

Shortly afterwards, Laude was found naked, propped up by the toilet. Her head apparently had been stuck in the toilet. Mark Clarence Gelviro, another transgender, said Pemberton was drunk but friendly and “thought we were real women.”

Olongapo, a seamy bar town, is next to Subic Bay, the port where American military ships dock. Subic had been a US Navy port for nearly a century before relations soured. The US and Manila were working on rebuilding a relationship that was ruptured in 1991 when the US pulled its bases out of the country rather than submit to a list of demands from the Philippine government. That process is continuing. In April of 2014, the two countries agreed to expanded military cooperation, with increased presence of US forces on a rotating basis.

Leftist and nationalist opponents contesting the agreement between the two countries have challenged the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, as it is known, to the Supreme Court, where it has languished for months. What is regarded as the leniency of the sentence, a prison term of six to 12 years and an order to pay damages to the Laude family of PHP4.6 million (US$100,000), are expected to generate more protest.

Had Pemberton been found guilty of murder he could have faced a sentence of 40 years to life imprisonment. The court, however, said the prosecution failed to establish aggravating circumstances of treachery and abuse of superior strength that would have subjected him to a murder charge. Pemberton, in a previous court appearance, acknowledged choking Laude unconscious when he discovered she was a transgender.

The court said that when Pemberton met Laude, dressed as a schoolgirl and offering sex, he immediately agreed. While inside the motel, he got excited but “felt something different, something that was not supposed to be there and realized that (Laude) was a dude.”

“He was enraged and in the heat of passion he arm-locked and dragged him [Laude] inside the bathroom and dunked his head in the toilet bowl,” the court said, noting all that happened immediately after he discovered that Laude was a man.

Pemberton was ordered confined to prison in the Philippines as a “national prisoner,” although US officials are likely to challenge the decision. Under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, the terms of Pemberton's incarceration should be mutually agreed to. Lawyers for the defense are expected to appeal the case given the leniency of the sentence.

Pemberton’s ship, the USS Pelilu, an amphibious assault carrier named for the Battle of Pelilu (now Palau) during World War II, was docked in Subic Bay when Jennifer was murdered. The US Navy has been increasing its visits to the Filipino port over the past several years as Washington pivots back to Asia as an attempted counterweight to growing Chinese domination of the South China Sea.

The Philippines has been at particular loggerheads with China as Beijing has continued to encroach in waters Manila regards as well inside its Economic Exclusion Zone. The Philippines has sought arbitration with an international court in the Hague. When the arbitration court ruled that the Philippines had a right to bring the case, China ignored the ruling.

US forces have also been providing advisers to counter the long-running presence of Islamic terrorists on the island of Mindanao although they have not assumed a combat role.

On Monday a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs noted that “The Philippines has excellent relations with US and we expect to be able to maintain that excellent relations.”

The Pemberton case is hardly unique, however. The protection of United States service members accused of crimes overseas has been a hot button issue across Asia, particularly in South Korea, Okinawa and Japan, where frequent incidents of rape, car accidents and other offenses have exacerbated relations. In cases in the past, offenders have been transferred to the United States to serve out their sentences in US military prisons.

A similar media circus erupted in in 2005, for instance, when four Marines were arrested for allegedly raping a young Filipina in a van at Subic Bay. Eventually the accuser, Suzette Nicolas, said only one of the Marines, a Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, had raped her. After a year of hearings in a Filipino court, Smith was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 40 years in jail although the sentence was cut substantially later.

But instead of being confined in a Filipino prison, Smith remained in the US embassy in Manila for more than three years despite the judge’s order that he be confined in a Philippine jail, and despite protests from Suzette’s camp. Eventually, however, complicating the issue even further, Nicholas recanted her accusation of rape and Smith was freed. After receiving PHP100,000 in restitution, Nicholas received a visa and left for the United States.