Vice President Leni Robredo on Tuesday questioned President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to grant absolute pardon to US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, which abruptly cut short his 10-year imprisonment for killing transgender woman Jennifer Laude and settled the legal dispute over whether his sentence should be considered fully served.
The President announced his decision on Monday as the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Olongapo City, where the killing happened in 2014, was hearing a motion for reconsideration of its ruling last week that the former Marine lance corporal had served his sentence after the good conduct time credits were applied to him.
“Was this a fair and just decision?” Robredo asked, citing as a backdrop the thousands of Filipinos who remained in prison but too poor to pay for lawyers to get their cases resolved.
“Pemberton had lawyers, special detention facilities, a quick public trial, and an appeal. Now it appears more clear that he also had resources to ensure that he could draw attention to his case from the President himself,” she said in a statement.
Duterte defended his decision on national television on Monday night, saying the country “did not treat him [Pemberton] fairly” when one considers his “good character,” which should be presumed and credited, given that there was no record of his behavior while he was serving his sentence.
“So it is not the fault of Pemberton that that was not computed because we should allow him the good character presumption,” he said.
Favoring the powerful?
Pemberton has been held in a makeshift prison fashioned from a steel shipping container at Camp Aguinaldo since he was convicted in November 2015.
In her statement, Robredo said the pardon for Pemberton was “one of the numerous instances where the government favors the powerful.”
“There are so many Filipinos with much lighter offenses who are not given attention or being granted this kind of privilege. What we see is the poor are punished and the rich and powerful are freed,” the Vice President said.
“We continue to hope that the President exercises his vast powers in a manner that is fair and that benefits the common Filipino,” Robredo said.
In a report for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Jesuit priest Silvino Borres said the pardon reflected the “unfair” justice system.
Borres, who also works with inmates in Philippine prisons and lectures on spirituality at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Loyola Institute of Theology, challenged Mr. Duterte to also grant pardon to thousands of other prisoners “more deserving than Pemberton.”
The former Marine met Laude in Olongapo after taking part in joint US-Philippine military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in October 2014. According to court records, he choked her and shoved her head into a toilet bowl inside a hotel room after learning she was a transgender woman.
The pardon “brought back the pain” caused by Laude’s death almost six years ago and it came as a shock and “felt like a betrayal” to her family, said their lawyer, Virgie Lacsa-Suarez.
“I thought President Duterte was on our side. I thought he was an ally and he hated America. What happened?” Suarez said, quoting Laude’s sister, Marilou.
She said the only request of the Laude family was for “such [pardon] to not happen again.”
“We hope there would never be another Jennifer Laude,” Suarez said, quoting Laude’s sister, Marilou.
The lawyer said the pardon was “a revolting turn of events,” considering that Pemberton has never served time inside a Philippine jail with other convicts.
“From the very start, our government failed to get custody of Pemberton. He is in a special holding facility guarded by American and Filipino soldiers inside Camp Aguinaldo,” she said. “Isn’t it unfair to Filipinos that he [Duterte] said Pemberton was not fairly treated?”
“This is another hallmark of Philippines’ subservience to the US. The pardon given to Pemberton is a mockery of our judiciary and legal system,” she added.
Rowena Garcia-Flores, Pemberton’s lawyer, said her client told her he was “very happy” about the President’s pardon, but she herself was “in disbelief.”
“We didn’t expect that President Duterte would grant him that. As a lawyer, the President knows that we didn’t ask for what was not according to the law,” Flores said in a television interview.
According to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, the “usual procedure” is for a convict to apply for pardon or parole, “but nothing prevents the President from directly exercising his constitutional power to grant executive clemency at any time.”
Flores said Pemberton, a former antitank missile operator, told her he would like to get a job back home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and obtain a college degree.
Gabriel Chaclag, spokesperson for the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), said they were waiting for an official copy of the pardon to process Pemberton’s release.
“We will just expedite the process so it can be over soon,” he told a radio interview.
According to BuCor, Pemberton is still in solitary confinement at the prison specially made for him at the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board area in Camp Aguinaldo.
While the facility is inside the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it is under the administration of the United States. Both American and Filipino personnel are guarding the van-turned-prison facility.
Guevarra said the President’s decision granting the pardon to Pemberton “was solely his own,” without any request, even from the US government. “No one prompted it,” he said.