U.S. Marine Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton was formally charged with murder by the Phillipine government today for the death of 26-year-old trans Filipina woman Jennifer Laude, reports the Associated Press.
Earlier this week, the Philippine government completed its investigation into Laude's murder, partly relying on closed-circuit television footage, according to the New York Times. Pemberton's charges were successfully argued as "murder" by chief prosecutor Emiline de los Santos due to their aggravated violence, rather than the lesser charge of "homicide."
"There was aggravated treachery, abuse of superior strength, and cruelty," de los Santos explained to the Times. "You can see the cruelty she endured, the injries she sustained. We believe we have a strong case."
Pemberton, 19, now faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted. He will face the decision of a Phillipine judge, as there is no jury system in the Phillipines. He is currently being held in a modfied shipping container on a military base in Manila, guarded by both Phillipine and U.S. sentries.
The case revolves around the fatal strangulation of Laude in an Olangapo City hotel, committed while Pemberton was stationed with U.S. forces in the Phillipines for military training exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement. On October 11, Laude was found in a hotel room bathroom with her neck broken. Pemberton was allegedly seen checking into the hotel with Laude in the early morning hours, and then seen leaving alone shortly thereafter.
When the crime was discovered, Pemberton was quickly charged with murder by U.S. officials, but Phillipine authorities demanded he be turned over to their custody. After initially refusing, the U.S. agreed to have Pemberton held in the Phillipines under joint custody in late October.
The case has emboldened Filipino, Filipino-American and American human rights advocates, many who have called for the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which was signed earlier this year. The agreement allows for the increased rotations of troops, ships, and other U.S. military assets through bases in the Philippines, which activists have argued is against the interests of Filipino citizens. The agreement is intended, according to the Wall Street Journal, to be a centerpiece in President Barack Obama and the Pentagon's new Pacific-leaning global military stance — intended as a counterweight to China's growing strength in the region.
Currently, the Agreement remains intact, and it is unclear whether changes will be made. However, Phillipine President Benigno Aquino III has lauded the U.S. government for turning Pemberton over to be prosecuted by the Filipino court system, telling the Journal that, "Now, [Pemberton] is in our camp. I think [American forces] are responding to our needs and our sensitivities."
With Pemberton's charges now moving forward under the watchful eyes of both Phillipine and U.S. authorities and activists, Jennifer Laude's loved ones and counsel have just one more request: That Pemberton be shown to the public. He has not yet made a public statement or shown up to the preliminary hearings for his case, notes the Time.
Further, Harry Roque, the lawyer of Laude's family, has called for Pemberton to be thrown into a regular Filipino jail. "This is the first step to justice," he explained to the Times. "This is not an ordinary case. It is under the visiting forces agreement. The question is, where will Pemberton be detained? Will he be handcuffed and brought to face the court?"