Duterte grants 'absolute pardon' to convicted US Marine Pemberton

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippine, September 7) — President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday granted "absolute pardon" to US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton after serving less than six years in detention for killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude.

He was set to be released early after a local court on September 1 credited Pemberton more than four years’ worth of good conduct time allowance (GCTA)  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. But this was challenged by the lawyer of the Laude family by filing a motion for reconsideration, questioning the computation and basis of GCTA credits awarded to him.

The appeal delayed the release of the convicted American national.

Duterte said it is unfair to keep Pemberton detained pending appeal resolution, arguing it is not Pemberton's fault there is no proper record of his exemplary behavior while he was alone in a special detention cell in Camp Aguinaldo.

"You have not treated Pemberty fairly so I will grant for his release. Pardon... There is a time where you are called upon to be fair, be fair," he said during his weekly address to the nation. "It is not the fault of Pemberton na hindi na na-compute because we should allow him the good character presumption kasi wala namang nag-report na Marines na nagsabi nagwawala siya."

[Translation: You have not treated Pemberty fairly so I will grant for his release. Pardon... There is a time where you are called upon to be fair, be fair. It is not the fault of Pemberton that his good conduct was not computed properly. We should give him the presumption of good character because the Marines did not report that he misbehaved. ]

Duterte said he informed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra before he announced his decision.

Guevarra said the President's decision was made independently, without external pressure. He added that even outgoing US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim was surprised with the news when he arrived in Malacañang on Monday night for his farewell call. He said Duterte simply saw that the presumption of good conduct was on Pemberton's side since there is no proof he misbehaved in detention.

"I saw that the president’s decision to grant pardon to Pemberton was solely his own. No one prompted it," he said in a message.

The Department of Justice was slated to file a motion for reconsideration this week to oppose the Olongapo Court's release order, but it was preempted by the granting of absolute pardon.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, the former counsel of the Laude family, said the pardon erases questions on whether Pemberton is qualified for good behavior credits.

"No more issue/question if he's entitled to GCTA. Wala nang issue kung applicable ba sa kanya yung batas dahil hindi siya nakulong sa national penitentiary. Binura na po ng Presidente kung ano pa yung parusa na dapat ipapataw kay Pemberton. Ang hindi po nabura ng Presidente yung conviction ni Pemberton, mamatay tao pa rin siya," he said.

[Translation: No more issue/question if he's entitled to GCTA. There is no more issue whether the law applies to him because he was not detained at the national penitentiary. The President erased any additonal punisments that may be given to Pemberton. What the President did not erase was Pemberton's conviction, he is still a killer.]

Pemberton has served a total of 2,142 days or over five years and ten 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.

The Court of Appeals initially sentenced Pemberton up to 12 years of imprisonment, but this was later reduced to a maximum of ten years.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' News Night, Pemberton's lawyer Rowena Flores said the President's decision was a surprise, adding that she did not make a representation to Malacañang for the pardon.

"I'm very happy with this development, and I thank our President for his pardon," she said. "I think with this development, justice is served and that the laws were followed."

Flores said Pemberton would have to meet certain requirements first before he can leave the country, including clearance from the National Bureau of Investigation.

Several senators, such as Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senators Panfilo Lacson and Imee Marcos, backed the President's decision.

However, the President of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, Edre Olalia, said the decision was "unbelievable," adding it was timed to "pre-empt the possibility of any other adverse result to his case."

"What makes it even more atrocious is that his entitlements and liberty were apparently politically bartered through an onerous and servile military agreement. What cheap price sovereignty and national dignity," he said in a statement on Monday.

Integrated Bar of the Philippines President Domingo Cayosa said while the President's move was unexpected, the Constitution gives Duterte the privilege to grant pardon.

He said there are three exceptions to this executive power: if the offender is being impeached; if the criminal case pertains to election offenses, in which the President would need the Commission on Elections recommendation; and if the offender is not yet convicted with finality.

"The case of Pemberton does not fall into any of these exceptions, so the power of the President can be exercised," he told CNN Philippines.

In October 2014, Laude was found dead in an Olongapo City motel room after a night out with then 19-year-old Pemberton. Laude's neck was blackened with strangulation marks, head rammed into a toilet, after Pemberton learned that she was transgender.