U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, center, is escorted inside a court in Olongapo city, Philippines on Dec. 1, 2015.
Photo by Aaron Favila/AP

US Marine found guilty of killing transgender Filipino

OLONGAPO, Philippines (AP) — 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 in the Philippines 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 Olongapo city, northwest of Manila. He was sentenced to 6-12 years in jail, with time already spent in detention credited, said court clerk Gerry Gruspe.

Laude’s mother, Julita, said that while she was happy the verdict detailed everything that had transpired, she was not pleased with the jail term because she had hoped Penderton would be found guilty 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.”

Outside the courthouse, a small number of left-wing activists rejoiced but warned that they would closely watch to ensure Pemberton is detained in a Philippine jail, as the judge ordered.

The Oct. 11, 2014, 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.

Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in a joint exercise last year. He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercise 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. Naval 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 of the Laude 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 jailed at the New Bilibid Prison, a national penitentiary in suburban Muntinlupa City.

The case also 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 Quezon City guarded by U.S. Marineswith an outer ring of Filipino forces.

Left-wing activists and nationalist Filipinos have cited the custody provision 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.

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US Marine found guilty of killing transgender Filipino