Philippine trial of US Marine starts after plea bargain fails

OLANGAPO, Philippines (AFP) - The murder trial of a US Marine accused of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines began on Monday after plea bargain negotiations fell apart.

Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton appeared in court dressed in a black suit and dark tie for the start of the trial, five months after he allegedly murdered Jennifer Laude in a red light district hotel.

Prosecutor Emilie Fe de los Santos told reporters there had been plea bargain discussions between both sides to settle the case, but no agreement was reached by Monday so the trial began.

Laude's relatives said they had been offered 21 million pesos ($468,000) in exchange for their approval to lower the charge from murder to homicide.

"No amount of money could pay for the years I spent raising my child," Julita Cabillan, Laude's mother, told reporters.

"What they did to my child was gruesome. Just because we are poor doesn't mean we can't fight for justice." However one of Pemberton's lawyers, Benjamin Tolosa, insisted the marine's legal team did not offer any money.

"It has been insinuated the demand came from us and that's absolutely false. It's contrary to what happened," Tolosa told reporters at the end of the first day of the trial.

Pemberton, aged 19 at the time of the killing, would face 40 years in jail if found guilty of murder.

The maximum penalty for homicide in the Philippines is 20 years in jail.

He declined to enter a plea at pre-trial hearing last month, as his appeal to have the case dismissed is waiting to be heard in a higher court.

However the local court in the northern port city of Olongapo entered a not guilty on his behalf last month, so the trial could go ahead.

Laude, also known as Jeffrey, was found naked with strangle marks on her neck in a cheap motel room at Olongapo's red light district in October last year, according to a police autopsy report.

Pemberton, who had just finished training exercises between US and Philippine marines near Olongapo, checked into the motel with Laude, aged 26, shortly after meeting her at a bar, prosecutors said.

The prosecution's first witness, a bellboy, testified on Monday that he saw Pemberton at the motel on the night Laude was killed, according to de los Santos.

However the proceedings were closed to the media, and scant details were only initially available via de los Santos.

She said that, although the plea bargain offer negotiations had broken down, it could be revived and introduced "anytime" during the trial.

But lawyers for Laude's family accused de los Santos of promoting a plea bargain deal, and separately filed a request with the justice department on Monday asking for her to be replaced.

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.

Court cases are only rarely closed to the media in the Philippines. De los Santos said the judge in the Pemberton case had ruled it be held behind closed doors, but did not explain why.

A spokesman at the US embassy in Manila declined to comment on the case on Monday.