Prosecutors ask judge in Pemberton case to inhibit

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Government prosecutors representing the family of slain transgender woman Jennifer Laude have asked Olongapo Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 74 Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde to inhibit from the case.

On Monday, December 22, public prosecutors said Ginez-Jabalde was a former classmate of Rowena Garcia-Flores, counsel for US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton.

Flores, according to Laude family private counsel Harry Roque, responded in turn by saying Olongapo Chief Prosecutor Emilie Fe de los Santos was in the same school, Manuel L. Quezon University, as the spouse of Ginez-Jabalde. 

In a phone interview with Rappler, Roque said that although the Laude family's team of private lawyers supported the motion to inhibit, he personally believed the personality of the sitting judge would not factor into the actual decision.

"We joined the public prosecutors," Roque said, "But we feel the evidence is overwhelming and we don’t really care which judge sits."

The 26-year-old Laude was found on October 11 this year, naked and slumped lifeless in the toilet of the Celzone Lodge, a low-budget hotel in Olongapo City. Her lower body was covered with a blanket, and there were marks of strangulation around her neck. Witnesses said she was last seen in the company of the 19-year-old marine.

Police said the cause of death was “asphyxia by drowning.”

Laude's family filed a murder complaint against Pemberton on October 15 before the prosecutor's office in Olongapo City. A warrant for his arrest was released the next day. 

Not enough evidence

A petition filed today by Pemberton's lawyer with the Department of Justice argued that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to charge him with the killing of Jennifer Laude. The petition said evidence linking Pemberton to the killing was "based on nothing but conjectures and speculations."

"There was no evidence presented as to the details of the purported assault during the preliminary investigation other than the surmises and conjectures of the supposed witnesses and the baseless conclusions of the (Olongapo) police," the petition argued.

Although the murder case against Pemberton was filed with the Olongapo RTC, a petition to the justice department is also an option for the accused in such criminal cases.

Pemberton also wanted court hearings suspended pending a decision on his petition. Roque said the prosecution had already formally opposed the petition. Prosecutors argued a suspension would delay proceedings, which under a US-Philippine agreement must be completed in a year.

Roque said Pemberton's petition was "not a basis for suspension, especially for cases like this."

Coverage and custody

The high-profile case has inflamed anti-US sentiment in the Philippines and strained relations between the longtime allies, which both sought custody of the suspect.

Although the murder complaint was heard by the Olongapo RTC, Pemberton is being kept at a US holding facility inside the Philippine military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo. He is still under US custody.

The US denied an official request from the Philippine government for custody over Pemberton. The government said the refusal is allowed under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Roque said the Laude family will challenge the Philippines' refusal to appeal the US' custody. Detainees on trial are normally housed in Olongapo district jails.

The private prosecutors, said Roque, already filed a motion to move Pemberton to the custody of the local jail.

The private prosecution team also filed an urgent motion for media coverage. Citing the public's right to know, prosecutors requested for permission to allow the media to enter the court room and cover the hearings.

Reporters in Pemberton's earlier hearings were barred from entering the courtroom. – with reports from Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com