OLONGAPO, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine court is expected to deliver its verdict Tuesday in the emotion-charged case of a U.S. Marine accused of murdering a transgender Filipino after discovering her gender when they checked into a hotel, officials said.
Philippine police were readying heavy security for the ruling in Olongapo City, northwest of Manila, in the case involving U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton. Left-wing activists said they plan to hold protests in the city, where Pemberton is accused of strangling to death Jennifer Laude after they met in a bar in October last year.
The killing sparked anger in the Philippines and reignited calls by left-wing groups and nationalists for an end to America's military presence at a time when the U.S. is reasserting its dominance in Asia, and Manila has turned to Washington for support amid an escalating territorial dispute with China.
The murder case also revived a debate over which government should have custody of U.S. military personnel who run afoul of local laws under a Visiting Forces Agreement they signed in 1998.
Lawyers for the victim's family and Pemberton both predicted victory. Murder is punishable by life in prison while an acquittal is non-appealable.
On Monday, Laude's two sisters and mother, Julita, lit candles, placed a bouquet of flowers and prayed at her tomb in a small Olongapo cemetery. Julita said she prayed to God to give justice to her daughter.
Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was one of thousands of American and Philippine military personnel who participated in a joint exercise last year. He and a group of other Marines were on leave after the exercise and met Laude and her friends at a bar in Olongapo, a former liberty city outside Subic Bay freeport, a former U.S. Naval base.
Pemberton and Laude left the bar and checked in at a nearby hotel. About 30 minutes later, Pemberton walked out, leaving the door ajar, according to hotel staff.
Pemberton testified in August that he choked Laude during a fight that erupted when he discovered she was a transgender woman, but insisted she was still alive when he left her in a shower, according to his lawyer, Rowena Garcia Flores.
Police, however, said Laude had apparently been drowned in the toilet.
The Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. forces to conduct military exercises in the Philippines, says the Philippines can prosecute American service members, but that the U.S. has custody over them "from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings."
However, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that convicted U.S. personnel must serve their sentences in Philippine detention.
In a compromise last year, the U.S. agreed to have Pemberton detained in a compound at Philippine military headquarters in Quezon City guarded by U.S. Marines with an outer ring of Filipino forces.
Left-wing activists and nationalist Filipinos have cited the custody provision as proof that the accord was lopsided in favor of the U.S. and undermines the sovereignty of the Philippines, which was an American colony until 1946.