Laude murder: US soldier's appearance up to lawyers

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It's up to the lawyers of Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton to decide whether the US Marine suspected of killing a transgender woman last week will appear in the preliminary hearing.

"Whether the suspect will appear on Tuesday [October 21] is a decision that he will make in consultation with his Philippine legal counsel, in accordance with Philippine law. We refer you to his counsel for details," a statement read from the US Embassy in Manila, released Sunday, October 19, said.

This comes after a subpoena was issued Friday, October 17, ordering Pemberton to appear before the Olongapo City Prosecutor's Office on Tuesday to answer the murder complaint filed against him by the family of Jennifer Laude.

Laude, a 26-year-old Filipino transgender woman, was found dead in the bathroom of Celzone Lodge in Olongapo City last week.

Sources privy to the case said the lawyer of the American soldier is from the ACCRA law firm. 

In its statement, the US embassy added that four witnesses gave sworn statements to Philippine prosecutors last week.

"Last week, City Prosecutors met with four witnesses and swore them to their statements in accordance with Philippine law, satisfying the requirements of the City Prosecutor and the "make available" language of the U.S. – Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement," the statement read.

While the witnesses will not appear on Tuesday, the US said they will be made available for the trial "in accordance with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)."

The US also gave assurances that it will continue to "fully cooperate and collaborate with Philippine authorities in all aspects of the case concerning the death of Jennifer Laude."

Earlier, US embassy spokeswoman Anna Richey said the US will continue to assist in the probe, including "making the suspect, witnesses, and any evidence gathered available to the Philippine authorities."

Pemberton, who is being held at the USS Peleliu, has been identified by witnesses as the last person seen with Laude hours before she was found dead on October 11.

Police said the victim, who had checked in with the suspect just over an hour earlier, had died from "asphyxia by drowning." (READ: Killing of Jennifer Laude a 'hate crime' – police report)

Following the hearings, which could take days or weeks, the prosecutor can either bring criminal charges or drop the case. If Pemberton is charged with murder and convicted, he could face life in prison.

Meanwhile, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said in a press briefing that the Philippine government is determined to get justice for Laude.

Responding to questions over activists' calls to repeal the VFA, Coloma said that the VFA should also be taken in the "big picture" context of its role in the overall national defense strategy of the Philippines. With reports from Agence France-Presse/