Philippine trial of US Marine to go ahead despite no plea

OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines - A US Marine charged with murdering a transgender Filipina refused to enter a plea on Monday as he sought to have the case dismissed, but his trial will go ahead nevertheless, lawyers said.

The court overseeing proceedings against Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton entered a not guilty plea for him, meaning the trial can start within weeks, lawyers for the victim told reporters outside the court.

The cramped courthouse, surrounded by market stalls selling dried fish and rice, is about a five-minute drive from a motel in a northern Philippine red-light district where the battered remains of 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.

Pemberton had ventured into the nearby red-light district in Olangapo city for some rest and relaxation, met Laude at a bar, then beat her to death at the motel, prosecutors allege.

The pre-trial hearings will continue this week, with his trial expected to start in the third week of March, one of the lawyers representing the victim's family, Virginia Suarez, told reporters.

Prosecutors will present at least 18 witnesses at the trial, including a friend of Laude who accompanied her and Pemberton to the motel as they checked in, Suarez said.

A preliminary police report and autopsy findings that showed Laude, 26, 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."

'Conjectures and speculations'

Pemberton's lawyers had earlier asked the justice ministry to dismiss the case, stating evidence linking him to the case was "based on nothing but conjectures and speculations".

The ministry rejected the petition, and an appeal against that decision is still pending with a higher court.

Pemberton's 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, as well as her relatives, relayed to reporters outside the court his decision to not enter a plea, as well as the emotion inside.

Surrounded by 16 burly guards, Pemberton looked calm and flashed a faint smile during the proceedings, which lasted about an hour, Laude's sister Marilou, who was in the courtroom, told reporters.

"He had the nerve to kill my sister, yet he was meek in the courtroom... I am seething with anger," she said.

Marilou said the Laude family were determined to see Pemberton jailed for the maximum time possible, and would not agree to a plea bargain if there was an offer.

"There will be no compromise. He must pay for what he did to our sister... Finally the trial is moving, finally we can get justice," she said.

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.

While awaiting trial, Pemberton is being detained at an American-guarded facility inside the Philippines' military headquarters in Manila.