VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Malacañang does about-face on releasing convicted U.S. marine Pemberton

Read this fact check in Filipino

In just four days, the Palace went from calling a local court’s decision to free United States marine Joseph Scott Pemberton a “judicial overreach” to granting him absolute pardon for the 2014 killing of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude.


During his televised address on Sept. 7, President Rodrigo Duterte talked about his earlier announced decision to pardon the American serviceman. He said it was “not fair” to Pemberton that his supposed good conduct time allowance (GCTA) under Philippine law was not computed properly:

Hindi makatarungan...Pinatawag ko sila (Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra at Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea) kanina; sabi ko it’s my decision to pardon. Correct me if I’m wrong but ito ang tingin ko sa kaso. We have not treated Pemberton fairly, so i-release ko.

(It’s not just...I called [Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea] earlier; I said it’s my decision to pardon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I think of the case. We have not treated Pemberton fairly, so I’ll release him.)”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19 (sic), Sept. 7, 2020, watch from 18:02 to 18:44


Duterte’s pronouncement runs counter to what Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in his press briefing on Sept. 3 when he gave the Palace’s take on the decision of the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 74 to grant Pemberton’s motion for early release two days earlier.

Roque, who previously served as counsel for the Laude family, said:

“I’m speaking as [a] spokesperson. Mukha pong taliwas sa rekomendasyon na ginawa ng Bureau of Corrections ang naging desisyon ng korte. Sa mga naghahawak po sa pagkatao ni Pemberton...bigyan ninyo ng pagkakataon na mag-move for reconsideration ang Executive Branch dahil ang desisyon naman po on allowance for good conduct is an executive function.

(I’m speaking as a spokesperson. It looks like the court’s decision contradicts the recommendation of the Bureau of Corrections. To those who are in custody of Pemberton, give the Executive Branch a chance to move for reconsideration because the decision on allowance for good conduct is an executive function.)”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Press Briefing of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Sept. 3, 2020, watch from 25:15 to 26:50

The spokesman added:

“...[I]yong ginawa po ni Judge na siya na ang nagdesisyon kung paano siya bibigyan ng (the judge’s decision on how to grant) credit for good conduct is an instance of judicial overreach.”

In late August, Pemberton’s camp petitioned the Olongapo court for an early release on the basis of supposed time allowances earned for good behavior, which the court then granted on Sept. 1.

GCTA is a sentence reduction provision afforded persons deprived of liberty who show good behavior as mandated by Republic Act 10592. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Understanding good conduct time allowance for prisoners: 4 things you should know)

Sec. 5 of the law states that allowances for good conduct may be granted only by:

  • the director of the Bureau of Corrections;
  • the chief of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology; or,
  • the warden of a provincial, district, municipal or city jail.

Not all prisoners may avail of the GCTA. Recidivists, or those who have been previously convicted twice or more times of any crime, habitual delinquents, escapees, and those charged with heinous crimes are not covered.

Pemberton was found guilty of homicide by the same Olongapo court in 2015 for the brutal killing of Laude, and was sentenced to six to 10 years of imprisonment. His move to reverse the verdict was junked by the Court of Appeals in 2017. In June 2020, he withdrew his final appeal before the Supreme Court.

Since Pemberton was covered under the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the U.S., he was allowed to serve his sentence at a facility of the Armed Forces of the Philippines agreed upon by both countries. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The Visiting Forces Agreement, explained)

The lawyers of the Laude family have initially filed a motion for reconsideration on the Olongapo court’s recent decision, saying, among others, that the GCTA law “does not even apply to Pemberton” in the first place since the objective of the law was to decongest the country’s prison cells.

“[The] release of Pemberton will not at all help decongest our prison cells. Remember he is very much privileged [and was put] in a very privileged facility,” lawyer Virginia Suarez said in an interview on ANC on Sept. 2.

Expounding on the president’s decision, Roque told reporters that Pemberton can now be freed, adding:

Binura na po ng presidente kung ano pa ‘yung parusa na dapat ipapataw kay Pemberton. Ang hindi po nabura ng presidente [ay] ‘yung conviction ni Pemberton; mamamatay tao pa rin siya ([With the pardon], the president erased any additional punishments that may have been given to Pemberton. What the president did not erase is the conviction; Pemberton is still a killer).”

(See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Five things you should know about presidential pardons)


Teodoro Locsin Jr. official Twitter account, “Cutting matters short over what constitutes time served…,” Sept. 7, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19 (sic), Sept. 7, 2020

People’s Television, WATCH: Palace virtual presser with Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Sept. 3, 2020

Rappler, Pemberton’s bid for early freedom through GCTA now underway, Aug. 25, 2020, Pemberton's lawyer seeks dismissal of Laude family appeal on court's early release order, Sept. 4, 2020

ANC 24/7, Laude camp files motion for reconsideration over early release of Scott Pemberton | ANC, Sept. 2, 2020

Official Gazette, Republic Act 10592

ABS-CBN News, Olongapo court convicts Pemberton of homicide, Dec. 1, 2015, Olongapo RTC reduces Pemberton prison sentence to 10 years, April 4, 2016, Pemberton sentence reduced, April 4, 2016

CNN Philippines, Court affirms Pemberton's conviction but reduces sentence to up to 10 years, April 3, 2016

Rappler, CA upholds 10-year jail time for U.S. marine who killed Jennifer Laude, Aug. 20, 2017

CNN Philippines, Revisiting the Jennifer Laude murder case, Feb. 24, 2015

ABS-CBN News, CA affirms guilty verdict vs Pemberton, April 10, 2017

ABS-CBN News, Closed, terminated: SC accepts Pemberton’s withdrawal of homicide conviction appeal, Aug. 24, 2020, Pemberton withdraws appeal at SC to review conviction, Aug. 22, 2020

Rappler, Pemberton withdraws appeal, accepts 10-year sentence from 2015, Aug. 24, 2020

Official Gazette, Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Government of the United States of America Regarding the Treatment of United States Armed Forces Visiting the Philippines, February 10, 1998, Feb. 10, 1998

Manila Times, Pemberton gets absolute pardon, Sept. 8, 2020

OnewNews, Be Fair: Duterte Grants Absolute Pardon To US Serviceman Convicted Of Killing Transgender Jennifer Laude, Sept. 8, 2020

CNN Philippines, Duterte grants 'absolute pardon' to convicted US Marine Pemberton, Sept. 7, 2020

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)


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