MANILA, Philippines – A U.S. Marine convicted of the murder of a Filipino transgender woman was deported Sunday after a presidential pardon canceled his detention in a case that sparked renewed outrage over a pact over the American military presence triggered the Philippines.
Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton said in a farewell message that he was “extremely grateful” to President Rodrigo Duterte for his pardon and expressed his “sincere condolences” to the family of Jennifer Laude, convicted in 2014 of murder at a motel northwest of Manila, after finding out she was transgender.
In nearly six years in prison, Pemberton said he “spent a lot of time thinking about the many mistakes”
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Virginia Suarez, the Laude family attorney, said in a statement that she wished Pemberton “peace of mind” and hoped he had learned “the value of life and dignity regardless of gender or nationality.”
Filipino immigration officials and American personnel escorted 25-year-old Pemberton, who was handcuffed and wearing a face mask, from his cell in the main military camp in Manila to the airport, where he boarded a military plane. He has been put on a black immigration list and is no longer allowed to return to the country, immigration spokeswoman Dana Sandoval said.
The US Embassy said that “all legal proceedings in the case have taken place under Filipino jurisdiction and law” and that “Pemberton has served its sentence as ordered by Filipino courts.”
On Monday, Duterte Pemberton granted an “absolute and unconditional pardon,” which surprised many. The Filipino leader has long been a vocal critic of US security policy while addressing China and Russia.
Duterte’s pardon has been condemned by leftist and LGBTQ groups.
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The debate has been brewing about whether the Navy, whose detention was governed by the treaty ally’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), can be covered by a Philippine law granting ordinary prisoners shorter sentences for good behavior.
The Olongapo city regional court handling Pemberton’s case ruled that the law covers Pemberton and ordered authorities on September 1 to release him early for good behavior. However, the von Laude family and the Justice Department separately appealed and blocked his early release from a maximum sentence of up to 10 years.
Duterte said he granted the pardon because Pemberton was not treated fairly after his early release, which the Navy may have deserved, was blocked.
The court order sparked the perception that American military personnel who violate Filipino laws can receive special treatment under the VFA, which includes the legal requirements for temporary visits by U.S. forces in the country for large-scale combat exercises.
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Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Filipino military personnel who participated in joint exercises in the Philippines in 2014.
He and several other Marines were on vacation after the exercises and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a town known for its nightlife outside of Subic Bay, a former US Navy base.
Laude was later found dead with her head sagging in a toilet bowl in a motel room where witnesses said she and Pemberton had checked in. A witness told investigators that Pemberton suffocated Laude after discovering she was transgender.
In December 2015, a judge convicted Pemberton of murder, not the more serious murder charges brought by the Filipino prosecutor. The judge said at the time that factors such as cruelty and treason had not been proven.
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The VFA could have been overturned last month if Duterte had not delayed an earlier decision to end the pact after President Donald Trump expressed his willingness to help the Philippines deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Filipino leader has said his country could survive without America.
If the VFA had been scrapped, it would have removed a legal basis for Pemberton’s incarceration in the military camp and put pressure on him to be sent to one of the notoriously overcrowded and risky prisons in the country.