Court orders Pemberton’s early release on ‘good conduct’

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 2) — A local court ordered the release of Joseph Scott Pemberton, the US Marine Lance Corporal convicted of killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.

According to the September 1 decision of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court's Branch 74, Pemberton should walk free for good behavior.

Pemberton has served a total of 2,142 days or over five years and eight months in prison, but the court credited to him a good conduct time allowance of 1,548 days or more than four years. This yields an accumulated jail time of 10 years, one month, and 10 days, the court said.

“Thus he is now entitled to be released for he had already served the ten (10) year maximum of his penalty,” the order, signed by Presiding Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde read. The Court of Appeals initially sentenced Pemberton up to 12 years of imprisonment, but this was later reduced to a maximum of ten years.

The good conduct time allowance under the Revised Penal Code applied in Pemberton's case was under intense scrutiny in 2019 after it was revealed that some heinous crime convicts would be freed due to the measure, prompting the government to revise its implementing rules and regulations.

The Laude family appealed the court decision on Wednesday, arguing that Pemberton should not enjoy early release without proof of his behavior or participation in rehabilitation activities while in jail.

The motion for reconsideration added that Pemberton has never even joined fellow convicts at the New Bilibid Prison since he has been serving sentence “solo and comfortably” in Camp Aguinaldo. The U.S. soldier has been detained at the custodial center of the Armed Forces headquarters in Quezon City in line with the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.

Bureau of Corrections spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag confirmed to CNN Philippines that the bureau received the court order via e-mail. It will undergo the usual validation, then Pemberton's release will be processed, he said.

The Armed Forces explained that although it provided the detention facility for Pemberton, the BuCor retains management and administration of all convicted detainees.

"We will assist BuCor in facilitating the release of Pemberton by virtue of such court order," AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgardo Arevalo said in a statement.

How Pemberton's jail time was cut short

Pemberton in June filed an urgent motion for the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) to compute the time he served in jail by applying the good conduct time allowance law. In August, Pemberton appealed for his immediate release, claiming that the BuCor failed to give him a year’s worth of GCTA since it did not include in its computation his preventive imprisonment from October 22, 2014 until November 30, 2015.

The Olongapo court granted Pemberton’s partial motion for reconsideration and ruled that he should be given GCTA during the one year period. The court also took note that Pemberton already paid the Laude family the full amount of ₱4.65 million for civil damages.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who previously served as counsel for the Laude family, deplored the commuted jail sentence.

“Laude’s death personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty and the light penalty imposed on Pemberton proves that despite the President's independent foreign policy, that Americans continue to have the status of conquering colonials in our country,” Roque said in a statement.

Rowena Flores, lawyer for Pemberton, meanwhile stressed that her client deserves to walk free since the court already said that he has “exceeded his sentence.” She also said that Julita Cabillan, Laude’s mother, already agreed on Pemberton’s release on parole as early as 2017.

In October 2014, Laude was found dead in an Olongapo City motel room after a night out with Pemberton. Laude's neck was blackened with strangulation marks, head rammed into a toilet.

The high-profile case was brought back to the spotlight when President Rodrigo Duterte moved to terminate the VFA early this year. With the abrogation, Pemberton should be transferred to the state penitentiary in Muntinlupa, Roque said in February. The VFA remains in effect since the Duterte government suspended the termination amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNN Philippines' Anjo Alimario, AC Nicholls, and David Santos contributed to this report.