MANILA (UPDATE) – The Court of Appeals has affirmed a regional trial court’s ruling finding US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton guilty of homicide over the killing of transgender woman Jennifer Laude.
Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court's Branch 74 on December 1, 2015 handed down a guilty verdict and sentenced Pemberton to 6 years as minimum to 12 years as maximum imprisonment.
Pemberton, who was last person to be seen with Laude while she was still alive, was convicted for Laude's death on October 11, 2014. Laude's lifeless body was found inside the bathroom of a lodge in Olongapo City.
Pemberton's camp in April 2016 went to the CA to seek the reversal of the Olongapo court's decision.
However, the appeals court dismissed Pemberton's appeal for lack of merit and affirmed the Olongapo RTC’s decision with modifications.
The trial court earlier ordered Pemberton to pay Laude's heirs P50,000 as civil indemnity; P4,320,000 as damages for loss of earning capacity; P155,250 as reimbursement for the wake, burial, and other related expenses; P50,000 as moral damages; and P30,000 as exemplary damages.
The CA, however, modified this part of the trial court's ruling, ordering Pemberton to pay the heirs P75,000 as civil indemnity and
P75,000 as moral damages.
“Further, Pemberton shall pay interest at the rate of six percent per annum on all the civil liability from the finality of this Decision until fully paid,” the CA added.
Pemberton was originally charged with murder before the Olongapo court, but this was downgraded to homicide due to the absence of any aggravating circumstance. The court had said it cannot appreciate the qualifying circumstance of treachery, which is a ground for murder.
In his appeal, Pemberton's camp asserted that the Olongapo court erred in its decision, arguing that Laude was still alive after the supposed armlock by Pemberton.
Pemberton’s camp also argued that the Olongapo court brushed aside evidence establishing the possibility that Laude was killed by another person.
The US Marine also claimed that he attacked Laude out of self-defense, but the appeals court did not buy his excuse, noting that
“it is well-settled that the invocation of self-defense is an admission of the killing and of its authorship.”
"We thus find Pemberton's defense of an impending grave danger more imaginary than real… Indeed, a plea of self-defense cannot be justifiably appreciated where it is not only uncorroborated by independent and competent evidence, but also extremely doubtful by itself. Self-defense, like alibi, is a defense which can easily be concocted as it is in this case," the CA said.
"[T]he conviction of Pemberton for homicide is undeniable," the decision read.
Rep. Harry Roque, who supported the Laude family's legal battle, welcomed the CA's decision.
"The Court of Appeals' affirmation of the guilty verdict of Pemberton is a welcome development. The fact that a member of the US Marines was found guilty for breach of our criminal laws for the very first time is an affirmation of Philippine sovereignty," he said.
Pemberton is currently detained at a facility of the Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag) inside the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ headquarters.
Laude's killing stoked anger over the presence of US soldiers on Philippine soil after senators voted two decades ago shut U.S. bases because of social issues, including crimes committed by servicemen.
The two countries are close military allies and the United States has for years led dozens of joint training exercises in the Philippines.
But the relationship has soured under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who says the U.S. military presence makes his country a target for conflict, especially if tensions escalate between the United States and China in the South China Sea.
Duterte announced a "separation" from the United States in October, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
He has threatened repeatedly to scrap a series of defense pacts with the United States, but taken no concrete steps to do so, and Philippine defense officials frequently reaffirm the strength of the relationship. - with Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News; Reuters