Pemberton walks free, flies back to US following presidential pardon

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 13) — US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton— convicted for the controversial 2014 murder of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude— is now a free man after almost six years in jail.

Pemberton was released from prison and subsequently deported on Sunday morning, the Bureau of Immigration said. He left the country at 9:14 a.m. aboard a military plane bound for the United States.

In an interview with CNN Philippines, Immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said Pemberton was accompanied by members of the US military and representatives of the US embassy while heading to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where he boarded the flight.

Sandoval, however, stressed authorities cannot disclose the exact location of the soldier’s destination for security reasons.

Pemberton left his solitary confinement in Camp Aguinaldo after only serving five years and 10 months in detention.

This comes six days after President Rodrigo Duterte surprised the nation by granting him absolute pardon in the midst of appeals filed by the Laude family and even the Philippines' own Justice Department to block his early release on the basis of good conduct.

The absolute pardon grants the "total extinction" of Pemberton's criminal liability, restoring his civil and political rights and remits all penalties imposed on the American serviceman.

‘Difficult to lift Pemberton blacklist’

Pemberton is also blacklisted following the deportation order, the Justice Department earlier said.

Sandoval noted the US marine’s camp has not mentioned any request to appeal the lifting of his inclusion in the blacklist. She argued it may be difficult to remove the ban.

“For the lifting of the blacklist, there's a prescriptive period for that, before that it can even be considered by Immigration,” Sandoval said in an interview with Newsroom Weekend.

“If i'm not mistaken, it has to be at least ten years after the implementation, and for it to be lifted, kailangang wala na ‘yung grounds and reason kung bakit naging undesirable ‘yung alien na ito. And ‘yung reason for his undesireability is actually the incident that happened na napatay po niya yung isa nating kababayan. That's why, sa tingin po natin, napakahirap po na maalis ito,” she explained.

[Translation: If i'm not mistaken, it has to be at least ten years after the implementation, and for it to be lifted, there should be no more grounds and reasons for him to became an undesirable alien. And the reason for his undesirability is actually the incident that happened that he killed our countryman. That’s why we think, it’s difficult to lift it.]

Acceptance

With Pemberton now walking free, the family of Laude has no other choice but to accept Duterte’s decision for the pardon.

Kahit na tanggap na nila na paalis na talaga si Pemberton, malaya na… pero ang hindi pa rin nawawala ay yung kanilang pakiramdam na very frustrated at ‘yung feeling na na-betray sila,” the family’s legal counsel Atty. Virginia Suarez told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: Even though they have accepted that Pemberton is now leaving and is now free, they still feel very frustrated, they still feel betrayed (by the government).]

‘Injustice’

The chief executive’s move to grant Pemberton absolute pardon was met with outrage by members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who condemned another injustice done to their trans sister. Several opposition lawmakers called the move "shameless" and a "betrayal of public trust."

The issue also revived complaints that American servicemen get special treatment in the former US colony, and renewed calls from left-wing activists to put an end to US military presence in the country.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra defended Duterte, saying that while his department questions the four years' worth of good conduct time allowance credited to Pemberton, he sees nothing "really very objectionable" with the pardon, since it is an exclusive prerogative of the President.

A local court granted Pemberton early release on Sept. 1, extending to him a privilege given to detainees who exhibit exemplary behavior in prison. The court said Pemberton’s accumulated jail time already exceeded 10 years due to his good behavior – an issue contested by human rights groups and several officials, including Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque who previously served as private counsel for the Laude family.

Lessons learned

The Defense Department meanwhile vowed that stricter guidelines will be crafted and implemented in the conduct of joint military exercises with the United States in the future.

Guevarra likewise said that the Pemberton-Laude case— “though attended with intense conflict”— has provided “valuable insights and lessons to ponder on regarding the future of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the administration of criminal justice, and the exercise of the president's constitutional powers.”

The Jennifer Laude case

In October 2014, Laude was found dead in an Olongapo City motel room after a night out with then 19-year-old Pemberton, who confessed to killing her after finding out she had male genitalia. The 26-year-old transgender woman was found alone in the motel bathroom with her neck blackened with strangulation marks and head rammed into a toilet.

The Court of Appeals initially sentenced Pemberton up to 12 years of imprisonment, but this was later reduced to a maximum of 10 years. In line with the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, Pemberton was detained in Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces in Quezon City, instead of the New Bilibid Prison.

CNN Philippines' Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.