OLONGAPO, Philippines (AFP) – A US Marine asked a judge in the Philippines Friday to suspend his murder trial as he appeared in court for the first time since his detention over the killing of a transgender woman.
Before the trial proceeds, Private First Class Joseph Pemberton wants the justice department to first resolve an application to have the charge against him downgraded from murder to the lesser charge of homicide, court officials said.
Homicide carries a maximum prison term of 20 years, compared to 40 years for murder.
“It is a legal remedy available to them, but it is essentially a dilatory (delaying) tactic,” Virginia Suarez, a lawyer for the family of the alleged victim, told AFP.
The judge agreed to set a hearing Monday on the American’s petition to suspend the murder trial, court clerk Gerry Gruspe told reporters.
Pemberton was charged with murder over the death of Jennifer Laude, 26, also known as Jeffrey, whose body was found at a cheap hotel in the red light district of the northern port of Olongapo in October.
Pemberton, 19 at the time, had just finished taking part in US-Philippine military exercises near Olongapo and had checked into the hotel with Laude, according to police.
The high-profile case has inflamed anti-US feelings in the Philippines and strained diplomatic relations between the long-time allies, which both sought custody of the suspect.
The US government has refused to hand custody of him over to the Philippine authorities. The American was first detained by his superiors aboard a US military vessel, then later transferred him to a Philippine military base in Manila, although under US military guard.
Pemberton was driven before dawn from Manila to the Olongapo court, where he was booked and his mug shot taken before the judge ordered him remanded to the same detention facility, according to court officials.
Journalists were barred from the court hearing which Pemberton, under heavy guard, attended as a procedural matter before the start of his trial.
However, lawyers who attended the hearing and took photos described Pemberton as sitting quietly while wearing handcuffs in one corner of the tiny courtroom, surrounded by burly American security personnel.
The victim’s sister, Marilou Laude, told reporters she trembled with rage as she saw Pemberton for the first time.
“I wanted to grab his head and bang it against the wall,” Laude told reporters afterwards.
“We locked eyes briefly but he averted his gaze. I think he recognised that I’m the sister of Jennifer,” the Laude sister said.
“(Pemberton) has such an innocent face. I wanted to ask him why he wanted my sister dead.”
Laude family lawyer Harry Roque likened Pemberton’s detention arrangement as special treatment, and said he has asked the court to order the American’s transfer to a regular Philippine jail.