Philippine government prosecutors charged a U.S. Marine with murder Monday in the killing of a transgender Filipina. The case has reignited tension between the military allies over custody of American military personnel suspected of committing crimes.
Prosecutor Emily de los Santos said there was "probable cause" that Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton killed Jennifer Laude, whose former name was Jeffrey, in a motel room in Olongapo, northwest of Manila. Laude’s body was found on Oct. 11, and she had apparently been drowned in a toilet bowl.
"It's murder," de los Santos told reporters after filing the nonbailable charge against Pemberton, 19, before a regional court. "It was aggravated by treachery, abuse of superior strength and cruelty."
Among the evidence submitted by de los Santos and other prosecutors were statements by three of Pemberton's Marine colleagues. They went bar-hopping with him on Oct. 11 in Olongapo, a former liberty town, where sailors would go during their off hours, when the U.S. Navy was at the vast Subic naval base. Olongapo is now a bustling commercial and recreation hub.
Pemberton and some of his colleagues picked up women at a dance club and checked in separately at nearby motels. They returned to their ship after midnight. Witnesses saw Pemberton check in with Laude at a motel and leave shortly before her body was discovered, prosecutors said in their statement to the court.
Marine Lance Corp. Jairn Michael Rose, who went out with Pemberton that night, said that Pemberton confided back at their ship that he attacked the woman he was with by choking her after discovering, when she undressed, that she was transgender, according to the prosecutors.
"I think I killed a he/she," Pemberton was quoted as having told Rose.
Pemberton, a skilled boxer, allegedly said he choked Laude from behind with his arm "for a couple of minutes" until she stopped moving and then dragged her into the bathroom, according to the prosecutors.
The new details are likely to spark renewed condemnation by transgender advocacy groups, which have labeled the attack a hate crime.
The case has reignited a debate over custody of American military personnel accused of crimes. Washington agreed to move Pemberton from a U.S. warship to the Philippine military's main camp in metropolitan Manila, where he remains under U.S. custody with a ring of Filipino guards.
Pemberton, who has not been seen in public during the proceedings so far, will have to appear during court arraignment, de los Santos said. The prosecutor urged Laude's friends and family, who expressed doubts about whether the Marine was still in the country, to attend the arraignment to see him for the first time. Harry Roque, a lawyer for Laude's family, welcomed the prosecutors' ruling and angrily demanded that Pemberton be thrown into an ordinary jail.
The court in Olongapo handling the case is expected to issue an arrest warrant within the week as well as an order to put Pemberton in jail. "We look forward to the full cooperation of the U.S. government in ensuring that justice is secured," Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said in a statement.
The murder case has added pressure on the government of President Benigno Aquino III to renegotiate the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, testing security ties as the two allies face growing tension in the South China Sea. The accord would strengthen Washington's bid to reassert its presence in Asia and help Manila deter what it calls China's aggressive moves to reinforce its claims in disputed territories.
Manila and Washington signed the enhanced defense cooperation pact in April, allowing U.S. forces a greater and sustained presence in the Philippines for maritime security and disaster and humanitarian operations.
A few anti-U.S. activists held a protest outside the court on Monday to denounce Manila's new pact with the United States, saying the U.S. is abusing Philippine hospitality.
Nine U.S. warships canceled port visits in October and November after Pemberton's arrest.