Philippines-US relations

As Filipino convicts wait for freedom via GCTA, US soldier Pemberton to walk free

Lian Buan

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Pemberton's release order raises a lot of questions about the DOJ's GCTA policy. Is an American soldier more entitled to the law than a Filipino convict?

An Olongapo court has given US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton full credits of Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) and has approved the American soldier’s early release.

Meanwhile, as the Duterte government fumbled in revisions of the law, thousands of Filipino convicts wait for their chance at freedom.

“The Director General, Bureau of Corrections is directed to release accused Joseph Scott Pemberton from detention unless he is being held for some other lawful cause or causes,” said Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74 Presiding Judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde, allowing Pemberton to walk free 4 years ahead of his full sentence.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said the Department of Justice (DOJ) has yet to receive a copy of the ruling dated September 1. Perete was also unable to confirm as of writing if Pemberton had been released from Camp Aguinaldo.

Jabalde’s ruling, excerpts of which were released to media Wednesday, September 2, showed that Pemberton was given full GCTA credits so that he was considered to have served 10 years, one month, and 10 days.

Pemberton has actually been in jail for only 5 years and 10 months. Five years were part of his sentence as a convict, and the 10 months were his pre-conviction jail time, which can be deducted from his sentence because of the Credit of Preventive Imprisonment (CPI).

“Thus, he is now entitled to be released for he had already served the 10-year maximum of his penalty,” said Jabalde.

Transgender killed

Pemberton was convicted in December 2015 for killing transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude whom he had just had oral sex with. Upon finding out that Jennifer had male genitals, the bulky US marine arm-locked the lanky Jennifer and dunked her head in the toilet bowl.

Jennifer died of asphyxia by drowning and strangulation. The court convicted Pemberton of the lesser offense of homicide and sentenced the American soldier to 10 years in prison.

Because of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Pemberton was detained at a restricted facility at the military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.

Unlike Filipino convicts who have to survive in the gang-ruled and violence- ridden penal colonies like the New Bilibid Prison, Pemberton enjoyed the privilege of isolation within the army’s backyard.

For that, the court granted him full credit of every month, meaning he was found to have exhibited perfect behavior for 6 years.

Where’s record of good behavior?

The Laude family questioned this in a motion for consideration filed Wednesday, saying there is no proof of Pemberton’s good behavior.

The Laude family pointed out that the 2017 GCTA Uniform Manual says that a Time Allowance supervisor should keep records of the convict’s behavior and then later recommend the convict for credits.

“But there is (no record). More importantly, there should be a recommendation made by the Management, Screening and Evaluation Committee (MSEC). In the instant case, again, there is none,” said the Laudes’ motion.

The family added: “How can the MSEC make a recommendation sans records of Pemberton’s active participation in the rehabilitation programs or productive involvement in authorized work activities or any record of his exemplary deed?”

For months, Rappler has asked the DOJ if it had granted GCTA to anyone, more so released them, since September 2019. This was when the Antonio Sanchez scandal broke out and the department revised the GCTA internal rules to exclude heinous crimes.

There is still no answer up to now. 

What we know is that the grant of GCTA has been suspended in the Bureau of Jail and Management Penology (BJMP), where low-risk convicts are committed, instead of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor). They have been stranded at the BJMP as the coronavirus pandemic rages inside prisons.

A Naga judge has also written the DOJ to fast-track its grant of GCTA credits to spare prisoners from the coronavirus.

The legality of the new GCTA internal rules is being questioned in a still pending petition before the Supreme Court.

Homicide, which Pemberton was convicted of, is not considered a heinous crime based on the repealed death penalty law, the same law used by the DOJ to define what a heinous crime is.

There is also no revised uniform manual up to now, which raises the question of how Pemberton could be granted GCTA without an updated uniform manual.

In an earlier message, Perete said it was one of the issues that needed to be resolved by the court.

As Pemberton and his lawyers moved for this early release, the soldier withdrew his appeal at the Supreme Court and paid the Laude family P4.6 million in civil damages. It coincided with the Duterte government’s suspension of what was supposed to be a pullout from the VFA.

In a statement Wednesday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who used to be a lawyer for the Laude family, said he “deplores the short period of imprisonment meted on Pemberton who killed a Filipino under the most gruesome manner.”

“Laude’s death personifies the death of Philippine sovereignty,” said Roque.

Progressive leader Renato Reyes of the group Bayan, said the early release meant that the life of a Filipino only has a value of 6 years.

“Anim na taon para sa isang US serviceman na protektado ng VFA at binigyan ng ispesyal na kulungan sa Camp Aguinaldo. Anim na taon lang para sa pagpatay sa isang Pilipino,” said Reyes.

(Six years for a US serviceman protected by the VFA and given a special jail in Camp Aguinaldo. Six years only for killing a Filipino.) –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.