MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A U.S. Marine charged with murdering a transgender Filipino after allegedly discovering her gender when they checked into a hotel went on trial in a Philippine court Monday.
U.S. security escorts brought Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, wearing handcuffs, into a heavily secured courtroom in Olongapo city, northwest of Manila, for the trial after an earlier plea-bargain negotiation with the family of the victim, Jennifer Laude, reportedly collapsed, lawyers for Laude's family said.
Pemberton is charged with murder, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The court registered a not guilty plea for him last month after he refused to enter a plea.
Government prosecutors expressed confidence they could win a conviction.
"We will prove the elements of murder," state prosecutor Emilie de los Santos told reporters, referring to what she has described as "treachery, abuse of superior strength and cruelty" in the attack on the victim, who was formerly known as Jeffrey Laude.
Pemberton, an anti-tank missile operator from New Bedford, Massachusetts, is accused of strangling Laude and then drowning her in a hotel toilet last October after discovering she was a transgender woman. Prosecutors say they checked into the hotel after meeting in a bar in a red-light district.
Pemberton was bar-hopping with fellow Marines at the time after participating in joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises.
Government prosecutors presented their first witness, hotel worker Elias Gallamos, who identified Pemberton as the man who was with Laude shortly before she was found dead, according to Ethel Avisado, a lawyer for Laude's family.
The case reignited a debate over custody of American military personnel accused of crimes in the Philippines. The dispute was eased after Washington agreed to move Pemberton from a U.S. warship to the Philippine military's main camp in metropolitan Manila, where he is held under American custody but with an outer ring of Filipino guards.
Weeks before the trial, there was talk that the two sides were quietly discussing a possible plea-bargain agreement in which Pemberton would reportedly plead guilty to a lower charge in exchange for money for the Laude family. Both sides on Monday denied initiating the talks.
Laude's mother, Julita, told reporters she would not drop the case against Pemberton even if she was offered a million dollars.
"What they did to my child was gruesome," she said. "Just because we are poor doesn't mean we can't fight for justice."
The case occurred at a time when the Philippines and the United States have strengthened their military ties with the recent signing of a defense accord that allows greater U.S. access to Philippine military camps.
The accord will help Washington's bid to reassert its presence in Asia, and enable Manila to deter what it calls aggressive moves by China to push claims to disputed South China Sea territories.