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US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton (center), at a court hearing earlier this year.
US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton (center), at a court hearing earlier this year.Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images/File 2015

MANILA — A US Marine from Massachusetts accused of killing a transgender woman in the Philippines acknowledged Monday that he had choked her until she was no longer moving, but he stopped short of saying that he had killed her, according to the prosecutor assigned to the case.

Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, 20, who is from New Bedford, was arrested in October in connection with the death of a 26-year-old Filipino, Jennifer Laude. Pemberton had met Laude in a nightclub in Olongapo City, about 80 miles north of Manila, while he was on liberty during military exercises, then accompanied her to a hotel room, where she was later found dead.

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Pemberton, who has been charged with murder, testified during his trial Monday. It was the first time that he had publicly provided his account of what took place in the room with Laude.

He said that he brought Laude and another woman to the hotel, not knowing that they were transgender. He received oral sex from the women, he said, and one then left to buy condoms. Laude remained in the room, and he reached down to touch her vagina, he testified.

"He said they began fighting when he discovered that she had a penis," Emilie Fe Delos Santos, the prosecutor in the case, said by phone from Olongapo City. In his testimony, Pemberton said that he pushed Laude, she slapped him, he punched her, then he choked her with an arm lock until she was no longer moving.

He also testified that Laude was still breathing but appeared to be unconscious after being put into the arm lock. He said he then brought her to the bathroom to try to revive her and left her slumped over the toilet. He said he then took a taxi back to his ship, where he told a fellow Marine, "I left her unconscious."

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"Pemberton did not kill Laude," Pemberton's lawyer, Rowena L. Garcia-Flores, wrote in an e-mail on Monday. "He left Laude in the toilet alive."

Garcia-Flores said Pemberton had no criminal record and had never been in a fight before his altercation with Laude. She said that he acted to defend his honor when he discovered that Laude had a penis but that other factors led to the altercation, including his fear of being "scammed."

"He was a victim of the fraud committed by a sex worker" who was older than him, she said in the e-mail.

"Pemberton testified, 'I felt like I was raped by Laude,'" she wrote in a subsequent e-mail. "He was repulsed, felt violated and angry; that he would not have agreed to have sex with him if he knew he was a man."

If Pemberton is convicted of murder, he faces 40 years in prison, Roque said. If his lawyers can persuade the judge that there were complicating circumstances, like self-defense or deception regarding the victim's gender, the court could lower the charge to homicide, which is punishable by 12 to 20 years. In the Philippines, there are no jury trials, and cases are decided by a judge.

The case against Pemberton has complicated diplomatic relations between the United States and the Philippines. The countries entered into a military agreement last year that would bring thousands of US service members, as well as ships, planes, and equipment, to the Philippines on a rotating basis. The agreement is in limbo while the Philippine Supreme Court considers several cases that claim it is unconstitutional.

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Opponents of the deal, called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and of US military visits under the country's Visiting Forces Agreement, point to Pemberton's case as an example of the abuses that could occur if large numbers of US soldiers and sailors were allowed in.

"Jennifer Laude may not be the last victim of an American serviceman 'visiting' the Philippines," said Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of Bayan, a group that opposes US military involvement in the country.