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Tradeoff on Pemberton’s case

/ 02:46 AM December 10, 2015

The speed with which the Olongapo City court decided the case of US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton is every trial lawyer’s dream. It took the court only 281 days to hear Pemberton’s case and find him guilty of homicide for the death of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude.

Under the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), his trial should be concluded within one year, or 365 days. Otherwise, the US government will not be obliged to guarantee his attendance in any judicial proceeding.

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To meet the deadline, the court, prosecution, and defense had to give the highest priority to the hearing of the case and make the appropriate adjustments in their work calendar. For the court and prosecution, that meant postponing or rescheduling the trial of pending criminal cases. The defense, on the other hand, had to work double time to study and punch holes in the prosecution’s evidence. It did not have to prove Pemberton’s innocence because he enjoyed that presumption.

Under ordinary circumstances, a criminal case of this nature involving Filipinos would still be at the pretrial stage by this time. It would probably take at least four years before the court would be able to render judgement on the case.

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The decision of Pemberton’s lawyers to appeal his conviction to the Court of Appeals does not come as a surprise.

The presence of DNA material other than those of Pemberton and Laude in the crime scene (a motel room), the unexplained disappearance of Laude’s money and other belongings, and the fact that the DNA found in a condom in the motel room did not match that of Pemberton constitute sufficient grounds to question the court’s finding that his guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Once the appeal is perfected, the appellate court can take as much time as it needs to resolve it. The VFA does not impose a time limit on the resolution of the appeal.

By the time the parties have submitted their pleadings and the case is considered submitted for resolution (which could take at least six months), public sentiment about the crime would have subsided and the media’s attention would be focused on the national and local elections.

Meanwhile, Pemberton would be serving his sentence in a place other than the New Bilibid Prison (NBP), where, by law, convicted felons should be incarcerated. Instead, he will stay in a facility in Camp Aguinaldo that is presently being renovated. It is expected to be officially designated as an extension of the NBP, with its personnel performing guard duties.

So, from the legal standpoint, the Philippine government can be considered compliant with the court’s commitment order and the rules on imprisonment of prisoners convicted of grave offenses. More importantly, the Philippine and US governments can claim with a straight face that they have faithfully complied with the VFA on the treatment of soldiers who violate our penal laws.

It’s interesting to note that the decision on Pemberton’s case was issued 13 days after US President Barack Obama announced from the deck of a Philippine warship the delivery of two ships—a US Coast Guard cutter and a maritime research vessel—to the Philippine Navy to boost its security capabilities.

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Was the timing coincidental or deliberate?

Obama’s announcement was hyped as proof of strong bilateral relations and America’s commitment to stand by the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China.

Undoubtedly, the turnover of the two US ships was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Considering its possible repercussions with China, it was surely discussed at length by representatives of the two governments long before Obama’s visit to the country for the Apec leaders’ summit. It would not be far-fetched to think that the contingency plans on Pemberton’s case were taken up during the discussions.

A former justice official disclosed that arrangements on Pemberton’s imprisonment in the event of a guilty verdict were agreed upon months ahead but were kept confidential in deference to the trial court.

This matter was brought to the court’s attention only after the promulgation of the sentence. As a result, the court modified its commitment order on Pemberton to align it with the agreed arrangements.

The Filipino officials who negotiated the prison site could have insisted on the strict implementation of the rules on imprisonment at the NBP of people convicted of grave offenses.

But put yourself in the shoes of these officials. Given the Philippines’ conflict with China, it would be difficult to turn down a “request” of a military ally to bend the rules a little in favor of its soldier who got into trouble while in the country on official war games.

It would not be easy to turn down the request when it comes with two naval vessels and a public commitment to support your country in its dispute with the Chinese ogre. Besides, the liability for the crime will still be paid except that the payment will be done under less harsh conditions.

It’s true that no monetary value can be placed on the life of a person, but sometimes a country has to make compromises to the prejudice of certain interests for the greater good, in this case, national security.

It’s unfortunate that Laude became collateral damage, but tradeoffs are unavoidable in international politics.

Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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TAGS: Jennifer Laude, Joseph Scott Pemberton, New Bilibid Prisons, Olongapo City, PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement, Raul J. Palabrica, VFA, Visiting Forces Agreement
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