OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines - A US Marine charged with murdering a transgender Filipina refused to enter a plea on Monday, prompting a court to submit not guilty for him so his trial could go ahead, prosecutors said.
Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton declined to make a plea because he wants a higher court to first hear his appeal for the case to be dismissed, lawyers for the victim told reporters outside the court.
The cramped, courthouse surrounded by market stalls selling dried fish, rice and eggs, is about a five-minute drive away from a cheap motel where the bloodied remains of 26-year-old Jennifer Laude were found in October last year.
Pemberton, who was 19 at that time, was the last person seen with Laude before her death, according to police. He faces life imprisonment if found guilty.
On the night of the death, Pemberton and other Marines had just finished joint training exercises with Filipino troops at a military base in the northen Philippines.
Pemberton had ventured into a nearby red-light district for some rest and relaxation, and met Laude at a bar, prosecutors allege.
Prosecutors will present at least 18 witnesses in court, including a friend of Laude who accompanied her and Pemberton to the motel as they checked in, one of the lawyers representing the victim's family, Virginia Suarez said.
A preliminary police report and autopsy findings that showed Laude died due to "asphyxia by drowning" will also be presented as evidence, she said.
"We have enough evidence and witnesses to convict Pemberton of murder," she said.
"He (Pemberton) was the only person with Jennifer the entire time she was in the hotel and the (motel) cashier can attest to that." Pemberton's lawyers had earlier asked the justice ministry to dismiss the case, then sought to downgrade the murder charge to homicide, saying there was no evidence to show that the killing was pre-meditated.
An appeal against the decision not to dismiss the case is still pending with a higher court, and his lawyers said on Monday that he would not enter a plea until those proceedings were over, according to Suarez.
Pemberton appeared in the court for the arraignment on Monday, but the proceedings were closed to the media.
The state prosecutor and lawyers for Laude's family relayed to reporters outside the court his decision to not enter a plea.
Suarez said the pre-trial hearings would continue this week, with his trial expected to start in the third week of March.
Laude's death re-ignited long-simmering anti-US sentiment in the Philippines, a former American colony that still allows a significant American military presence via joint training exercises.
Under a Visiting Forces Agreement governing US troops' conduct in the Philippines, the United States is allowed to retain custody of Pemberton during the legal proceedings against him.
He is currently being detained at an American-guarded facility inside the Philippines' military headquarters in Manila.