MANILA (UPDATE) – US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton on Tuesday was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of homicide for the killing of transgender woman Jennifer Laude.
Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court's Branch 74 handed down a guilty verdict and sentenced Pemberton to 6 years as minimum to 12 years as maximum imprisonment.
The court also ordered Pemberton to pay Laude's heirs P4.32 million for loss of earning capacity, P155,250 as reimbursement for wake and burial expenses, P50,000 for moral damages, P50,000 as civil indemnity and P30,000 for exemplary damages.
The court noted that the P100 millon in damages being sought by the victim's heirs is ''excessive and outrageous and has no basis at all.''
READ: From motel to court: The Jennifer Laude slay case
Pemberton was originally charged with murder before the court, but this was downgraded to homicide due to the absence of any aggravating circumstance. The court said it cannot appreciate the qualifying circumstance of treachery, which is a ground for murder.
The court likewise cited two mitigating circumstances in the Laude slay.
The first is that "passion and obfuscation" as mitigating circumstance were present in the Laude case.
It noted that Pemberton was deceived into paying for sex with Laude, not knowing that the latter was a man.
''Pemberton could have been so excited and sexually aroused and started reaching for a vagina, hoping to consummate the act. When he felt something weird, he realized what was on top of him was a man,'' the court said.
"This overcame his reason and self control," the court added.
The court said the second mitigating circumstance afforded to Pemberton was his intoxication defense.
''Pemberton did not have any plan to kill Laude as he and his buddies were only out on liberty. Thus, his drunkenness is not subsequent to kill Laude,'' the court said.
The court also granted weight to the testimony of US Marine Lance Corporal Jairn Michael Rose and Corporal Christopher Miller.
Rose earlier told the court Pemberton admitted: "I think I killed a he or she" on the night of Laude's death.
Miller, meanwhile, said Pemberton told him that he "might have f*cked bad."
''The admissions by the accused to Corporal Rose and Miller are considered admissible as evidence against the accused,'' the court said.
Laude's body was discovered inside the bathroom of Celzone Hotel in Barangay West Tapinac, Olongapo City in October last year.
Hotel staff found the lifeless Laude wrapped in a bed sheet, with her head slumped in the toilet bowl.
Police said Laude checked in at the hotel with a foreigner, who appeared to be in his mid-20s. The foreigner then left the room after about half an hour.
Initial investigation revealed Laude's neck was pressed down on the toilet seat, while her head was being shoved into the toilet bowl.
Police then tagged a US Marine as the person who accompanied Laude in the motel. This US personnel would later be identified as Pemberton.
On December 15, 2014, prosecutors found basis to file murder charges against Pemberton for the death of Laude, and ordered the latter to face trial for murder in a Philippine court. He was ordered arrested a day later and had since stayed in a US-controlled detention facility in Camp Aguinaldo.
In what was considered a breakthrough in the case, Pemberton himself admitted that he choked and hit Laude during his trial.
In his direct testimony in court, Pemberton alleged this was done in defense of his honor and life after he there was an exchange of blows between them when he found out that a fellow male gave him oral sex.
However, the court dismissed Pemberton's self-defense argument, noting that there was no unlawful aggression on the part of Laude.
''Unlawful aggression is wanting under the circumstances. Attack coming from Laude did not put in peril life of Pemberton,'' the court said.
Pemberton's lawyers' basis for saying that the US Marine should be acquitted was the prosecution's supposed failure to explain why Laude's neck bore traces of three kinds of DNA, including those of the victim and the suspect.
Defense lawyers' had theorized that another person might have killed Laude, said by forensic experts to have died on Oct. 12. Pemberton left the hotel at 11:30 p.m. the previous day.
However, the court said the defense failed to establish how the other people who had knowledge of Pemberton and Laude's presence in the motel could have perpetrated the killing.
It said there is also the possibility that the DNA of the third person could come from any of the investigators and rescuers.
''All of the above circumstances sufficiently established were taken together by the court as they formed an unbroken chain that led to the reasonable conclusion that Pemberton, to the exclusion of all others, is responsible for killing of Laude,'' the court said.
The court added that while defense witnesses managed to establish Pemberton's good character, ''if the evidence of the crime is clear and convincing, evidence of good character will not prevail.''
The death of Laude triggered calls for the abolition of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US forces to have a rotational presence in the Philippines.
READ: Laudes want VFA scrapped
Prosecution lawyers Harry Roque and Virgie Suarez lamented that the US Marine should have been convicted for murder instead.
"This is not of course a complete justice, but we have to recognize that there is victory here," said Suarez.
Roque questioned why the court ruled that there was no evidence of cruelty in the slay of Laude when she was supposedly clearly brutally killed.
The mother and sisters of Laude, likewise, expressed the same sentiments.
"Nagpapasalamat ako sa lahat. Nasiyahan naman ako dun sa pagbasa dahil inisa-isa, hinimay-himay talaga lahat... Pero hindi ako kuntento dun sa sinabi na anim na hanggang sampung (sic) taon. Bakit ganun?" said Laude's mother, Julita.
"Ang importante makukulong siya. Hindi nasayang yung pinaglalaban namin. Makukulong siya. Hindi nasayang ang buhay ng anak ko na hindi niya mapagbabayaran," added Julita in tears.