Family of transgender woman slain by U.S. Marine in Philippines contests killer's early release

U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton was convicted Nov. 24, 2015, in the death of Jennifer Laude in the Philippines.


By REGINE CABATO | The Washington Post | Published: September 3, 2020

MANILA,, Philippines A U.S. Marine convicted of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines will remain behind bars while a court considers an appeal against a decision to release him early, a senior government official said Thursday.

Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton on Tuesday was granted four years off his 10-year homicide sentence for good behavior by a regional trial court in Olongapo, the port city north of Manila where the crime occurred.

The killing of Jennifer Laude drew widespread attention, in part because of the longstanding alliance between the Philippines and the United States and the taboo surrounding sex work. The decision to grant Pemberton early release sparked protests this week and rekindled concerns here about discrimination against the LGBTQ community and U.S. influence in local affairs.

Pemberton met Laude at a bar in October 2014 while the Marines were in the city on official business. She was later found dead in a motel room, her head over the toilet. Local media reported that Pemberton, then 19, admitted to choking the 26-year-old Laude after discovering she was transgender. He claimed he acted in self-defense, but Laude's supporters and a police investigation identified his actions as a hate crime.

He was sentenced in 2015 to six to 12 years' imprisonment, but this was later reduced to 10 years. Laude's family also received about $95,000 in damages.

Laude's relatives have appealed the Olongapo court's decision to release Pemberton. Virginia Suarez, a lawyer for the family, said Thursday that the court had not informed them that Pemberton had applied for early release, and argued he was ineligible because of a lack of proof about his reformed character.

"He never even apologized to the family . . . [yet] he has the nerve to invoke good conduct," said Suarez.

The Justice Department and presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who previously served as a lawyer for the Laude family, said Pemberton would not be released while the appeal was underway.

"Our fellow citizen cannot be treated like an animal, with just a slap on the wrist as punishment," Roque told reporters Thursday. He said the court order went against a recommendation from the prison bureau, and that only the executive branch not the court could determine credit for good conduct.

Pemberton has spent his sentence in solitary confinement in a Manila military camp, rather than in one of the country's notoriously overcrowded penitentiaries. This arrangement was a result of provisions in the Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral treaty that governs procedures involving U.S. military personnel in the Philippines.

Pemberton's representatives rejected the idea that he was receiving preferential judicial treatment. His lawyer, Rowena Flores, said in an interview that he should have been released in July, based on the Olongapo court's assessment.

LGBTQ and human rights advocates said the court's granting of early release was an example of foreign influence over the former U.S. colony and an injustice against transgender people. The LGBTQ community is generally tolerated in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, but an anti-discrimination law sought by activists has languished in Congress for years.

The decision was "among the most notorious proof that the U.S. continues to trump Philippine sovereignty to this day," human rights group Karapatan said in a statement.

At a protest on Thursday, activists and members of the LGBTQ community tied red ribbons at the gates of the Justice Department. Protesters clad in masks held up rainbow flags and signs condemning the Visiting Forces Agreement.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has shifted his country's foreign policy away from the United States and toward China, previously announced he would terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, but suspended that plan in June.

The U.S. Embassy didn't immediately comment on the court proceedings but indicated it would release a statement later.

The Laude family, according to their lawyer, was devastated by Tuesday's court decision. Suarez said that good conduct in Pemberton's case is "not a matter of right it is privilege."

"Justice for Jennifer Laude is justice for the entire Filipino people," she said.