MANILA (5th UPDATE) - An Olongapo court has ordered the early release of a US Marine convicted for killing a Filipino transgender woman in 2014 on account of good behavior.
The Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74 granted Tuesday US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Pemberton's plea for release after finding he has served beyond his 10-year prison sentence under the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) rule.
In an order dated Sept. 1 and released Wednesday, Judge Roline Ginez-Jabale ordered the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to release Pemberton from prison unless if he was being held for some other lawful cause.
Pemberton has been held at a facility at Camp Aguinaldo, instead of regular prison, per provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.
By the Olongapo court’s computation, Pemberton has served 2,142 days in detention plus 1,548 days of GCTA grant or a total of 3,690 days or just a few days over 10 years, beyond the maximum penalty for homicide.
The GCTA law slashes prison time for convicts who show good conduct upon periodic assessment. Last year, it drew controversy as even heinous crime convicts, who are disqualified under the law, were granted early release.
Pemberton was sentenced to 6 to 10 years in prison for homicide over the Oct. 11, 2014 slay of Jennifer Laude at an Olongapo City motel.
Laude's body was discovered inside the bathroom of Celzone Hotel in Barangay West Tapinac, Olongapo City. Hotel staff found Laude's body wrapped in a bed sheet, with her head slumped in the toilet bowl.
As of Wednesday night, Pemberton remains detained at Camp Aguinaldo, his lawyer Rowena Garcia-Flores told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
She said her client would undergo the normal post-release documentation before Pemberton could be discharged.
However, Flores clarified that Pemberton had been serving nearly a month beyond his 10-year sentence.
"Siguro kung 'yan hindi Amerikano, matagal nang na-release 'yan. Dahil connected sa VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement), napopolitika po. Nagiging trial by media," she said.
(If only he's not an American, he could have been released a long time ago. Because it's connected to the VFA, it was politicized. It has become a trial by media.)
Flores also said Pemberton, who was sentenced in December 2015, was eligible to the GCTA law, which reduces an inmate’s sentence due to good conduct.
"Lahat applicable 'yan basta ikaw ay inmate at mabait ka, ia-apply 'yan sa inyo. Hindi special ang treatment ni Pemberton," she said.
(Everything is applicable as long as you are an inmate, and if you are on good behavior, it can be applied to anyone. Pemberton is not receiving a special treatment.)
Under the law, Pemberton while in solitary confinement received 20 days reduction for each month in 2016 because of good behavior, Flores said.
In 2017, the American soldier received 23 days reduction every month while it increased in 2020 to 25 days, she added.
LAUDE FAMILY 'DEVASTATED'
During trial, the US soldier admitted he hit and choked Laude after finding out that the latter had male genitals after an intimate act. A forensic pathologist testified that Laude died of asphyxia.
Pemberton was convicted of Laude's slay in 2015 and, apart from prison time, was ordered to pay her heirs over P4 million in damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in 2017.
The Sept. 1 court order showed Pemberton's camp paid damages to the Laude family in full - a total of P4.65 million - on Aug. 25, 2020.
The lawyer of the Laude family has filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that there was no proof of Pemberton’s behavior, conduct and participation in rehabilitation activities certified by the time allowance supervisor.
"Devastated 'yung family. Nagulat at nalulungkot kasi barely 5 years pa lang nakakulong si Pemberton," lawyer Virgie Suarez also told Teleradyo's "SRO".
(The family is devastated. They were shocked and saddened because Pemberton has only been imprisoned for barely 5 years.)
They also questioned the absence of proof of a recommendation from BuCor's Management, Screening and Evaluation Committee.
"The very purpose of GCTA, to declog the prison, walang ano 'yun, hindi 'yun mangyayari dito kay Pemberton because he is imprisoned sa very special and privileged facility," Suarez added.
(The very purpose of GCTA is to declog the prison. It couldn't be applied to Pemberton because he is imprisoned in a very special and privileged facility.)
Suarez also said Pemberton had "never dared apologize to the family."
However, Flores said the soldier was willing to apologize if only given a chance.
"Yes, of course. Yes, he is. If he can only talk with the family, I'm sure he will apologize," she said when asked if Pemberton was remorseful over the crime.
Flores also claimed that she had talked with Laude's family weeks before the court ordered Pemberton's release and they said they wanted to move on.
In a statement, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who served as private prosecutor for the Laude family, decried the court order.
"As former private prosecutor for the Laude family, I deplore the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner," he said.
"Laude’s death personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty and the light penalty imposed on Pemberton proves that despite the President's independent foreign policy, that Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials in our country," he added.
The military, meanwhile, said it had not received a copy of the court order and learned about Pemberton's impending release through media reports.
"We learned about the release order for USMC Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton from media reports. But we have not received a copy of such release order yet," said Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, military spokesperson.
He said while Pemberton has been held at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Custodial Facility in Camp Aguinaldo, "compliance to that order of the court will have to be done by the Bureau of Corrections," not the military.
The custodial arrangement was agreed upon through a memorandum of agreement between the military and BuCor, he said.
"The MOA provides that the former will make available the detention facility while the latter retains the management and administration of the [convict]. We will assist BuCor in facilitating the release of Pemberton by virtue of such court order," Arevalo said.
The United States Embassy in Manila has yet to respond to a request for comment and information about Pemberton's impending release.