Sheinbein Can't Be Extradited
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 26, 1999; Page A1
Israel's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Samuel Sheinbein, charged with killing, dismembering and burning another Montgomery County teenager in September 1997, is a citizen of Israel and cannot be extradited to the United States.
Sheinbein, 18, who never lived in Israel but whose family sent him there three days after Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr.'s mutilated and charred torso was found, remains in custody, and Israeli officials said he will be indicted there within days on a murder charge.
The court's ruling disappointed U.S. officials and created a furor among some Israelis, who said the country should not provide a haven for murderers. Tello's mother, Eliette Ramos, speaking publicly for the first time since the death of her son, 19, denounced the court's decision as "ridiculous."
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said Sheinbein's "guilt or innocence should be adjudicated here."
"He should be held accountable here," Gansler said. "Our view is that Mr. Sheinbein does not fit within [Israel's extradition] law. He shouldn't be able to hide himself under the law."
Attorney General Janet Reno, who had fought for Sheinbein's return, said, "We're disappointed with the response, but at the same time, we're going to be dedicated to doing everything we can to work with the local prosecutor and with Israeli authorities, if the case is tried there, to see that justice is done."
Sheinbein claimed citizenship through his father, who was born in British-ruled Palestine before Israel became a country. Under a 1978 law, no Israeli citizen may be extradited.
A State Department official said the department recognized that the decision was made within a responsible judicial system, but added that U.S. officials might recommend that Israel consider amending its extradition law.
In its 3 to 2 decision, the court reversed the ruling last fall by a lower court and held that Samuel Sheinbein enjoys all the protections of citizenship despite his tenuous ties to Israel. The lower court in effect had sought to create a new level of Israeli citizenship by saying he was technically a citizen but could not be accorded all its protections and therefore could be extradited.
It was clear, however, that even the justices in the majority were not happy with their ruling. "One can wonder if there is any justification for protecting someone from extradition when that person is not a resident and has no connection to Israel," Justice Theodore Orr wrote for the majority.
"It is hard to see any injustice when citizens have to stand trial for crimes they committed in a country which is the very center of their lives," Orr wrote.
Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who wrote the minority opinion, warned that trying Sheinbein in Israel might set a dangerous precedent. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live abroad, Barak wrote, and this "turns Israel into a sanctuary state" for criminals.
The decision came two days after the indictment on a murder charge of a Houston man who also is in the Middle East, perhaps Israel, and prosecutors think he may use his Israeli citizenship to block extradition. Dror Haim Goldberg, 20, indicted in the Nov. 27 stabbing death of a wig shop employee, went to Israel about a week after the slaying.
At a hearing yesterday of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said he is considering legislation that would set a date for new international extradition agreements to "eliminate these safe harbors."
Israel signed a treaty with the United States allowing extradition of citizens in 1963, but the justices found that the subsequent law barring extradition of citizens took precedence. Legislation that would codify the lower court's definition of citizenship is now before a committee of Israel's Knesset, or parliament.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also had urged Israel to return Sheinbein to the United States for trial, and Congress had threatened to hold up aid to Israel to force Sheinbein's extradition. Most congressional voices were more muted yesterday.
But Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), in whose district Tello's body was found, said yesterday he was "appalled" at the Israeli court's decision.
"The court undermines the spirit of cooperation embodied in the Israeli treaty with the United States. If the situation were reversed, we would be expected to cooperate and we expect no less from our allies," Wynn said in a written statement.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) called it "disappointing that a man who was a citizen of the U.S., who is accused of committing a crime in Maryland on American soil . . . should be tried in another country."
The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, based in Rockville, said in a written statement, "While the Israeli Supreme Court decision may not be universally popular, it was based on careful consideration of the facts and law involved in the case. As Americans who value their own independent judicial system, we should respect the decision."
The ruling appears to end a 17-month battle over Sheinbein, although U.S. officials said they were still meeting with Israeli officials over whether the decision could be reviewed.
Sheinbein's lawyer, former Israeli justice minister David Libai, has argued that his client fought extradition because he feared he would be treated abusively in American prisons. He renewed that argument after Sheinbein's co-defendant, Aaron Needle, 18, hanged himself with a bed sheet in his Montgomery County Detention Center cell in April, just before his trial was to begin.
Irit Kaan, the Israeli government attorney who has argued for Sheinbein's extradition, said: "It's not like you run to Israel and you run away from justice. The suspect will be tried for murder a very, very serious charge. He is not getting up and walking away." She said a senior prosecutor in Tel Aviv already has been assigned Sheinbein's case. No trial date has been set.
Many questions remained yesterday about exactly how the case against Sheinbein will be handled in Israel. There are neither grand juries nor juries in Israel. Murder trials are decided by a three-judge panel, and all proceedings are in Hebrew. As in the extradition proceedings, Maryland prosecutors will have no formal role.
Officials said the Israeli government will pay to transport witnesses from the United States, although witnesses and there could be dozens cannot be compelled to make the trip. It also was unclear whether Israel can enforce an immunity deal that Maryland prosecutors reached with Sheinbein's brother, Robert, and require him to testify in Israel.
The maximum sentence for first-degree murder in Israel is life in prison. But such sentences are usually commuted by the president to a 25-year sentence. However, Gansler said that because Sheinbein was a juvenile when he allegedly killed Tello, the maximum sentence would be 20 years. There is no minimum sentence.
If Sheinbein were tried and convicted in Maryland, he could have faced a maximum of life without parole. He could not receive a death sentence because he was 17 when Tello was killed.
There were also questions of whether Sheinbein will seek to plead not criminally responsible for his acts, and how long a trial might last. The three-judge panels often hear one witness one day and then wait several weeks to hear more witnesses, Gansler and experts in Israeli law said.
Before the court's announcement yesterday, Sheinbein, wearing a black leather jacket and black pants, sat trance-like as cameras flashed a foot from his unblinking eyes. When the chief justice announced the decision, Sheinbein's mother, Victoria, bit her bright red lips and lifted a wadded blue tissue, ready to catch her tears.
Sheinbein, who did not understand the judge's Hebrew, looked across the courtroom to his father, Sol, watching his face for a silent translation. Sol smiled, Sheinbein nodded tentatively, and his father replied with a vigorous nod. A grin creeped up the right side of the defendant's face. Victoria put away her tissue.
Sol Sheinbein's brief statement outside the courtroom was made in Hebrew: "I thank the High Court of Justice for the decision and I thank my attorney. I hope there will be a fair trial in Israel and he will do his punishment in Israel."
Victoria and Robert, her other son, strode ahead of Sol down the marble hall.
Standing a few feet away, Libai, Sheinbein's lawyer, said, "Our Supreme Court once again proved that it is independent and did not yield to political pressure from the United States." He added, however, that the Israeli extradition law is flawed and should be amended.
"There is a contradiction between our law and our commitment to the United States," Libai said.
All five justices agreed that ideally, Sheinbein should be returned to the United States; the problem was whether Israeli law allowed it. Orr's majority opinion adopted a straightforward approach to citizenship.
Mindful of the international politics involved in the case, Orr wrote that the district court's ruling "was born primarily out of the fear that Israel's refusal to extradite would lead to undesirable consequences."
Legally, Orr wrote, his hands were tied. It is up to the Israeli legislature, and not the courts, to change the law, he stated.
The ruling was the kind of decision that kept Israeli officials active all day, shifting and ducking blame. While the judges placed the responsibility on parliament, the prime minister's office referred critics to the Supreme Court.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a news conference: "Israel, as you know, is a lawful country, and in a lawful country the law is interpreted by the supreme court and we are committed to respecting its decision. I am sure the United States, which is also a lawful country, understands this."
One Israeli government official said, "It's the kind of legalistic entanglement that a country like the United States should understand a country where O.J. Simpson is released could understand a miscarriage of justice."
Special correspondent Laura Blumenfeld reported from Jerusalem; Katherine Shaver reported from Montgomery County; and staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Thomas W. Lippman contributed to this report.
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