Trial in Israel Has Advantages for Sheinbein Defense
By Katherine Shaver
The Israeli Supreme Court's ruling that teenage murder suspect Samuel Sheinbein cannot be extradited to Maryland for trial was a major boon to his defense and significantly improves his chance of minimizing his prison time if convicted, legal experts say.
Even if found guilty in Israel, the maximum 20-year sentence that the teenager would face makes him eligible for early release after 14 years, Israeli specialists said. In Maryland, he would have faced the possibility of life without parole.
Israeli law also will allow Sheinbein, 18, to pursue a defense of "diminished [mental] capacity," which Maryland law doesn't allow. His attorneys could use that argument to push for a more lenient sentence by trying to show that the teenager's reasoning was affected in some way when he allegedly killed Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 19, torched his body and sawed it into pieces in Montgomery County in September 1997.
"Diminished capacity" would be much easier to prove than an insanity defense, the legal experts said, and Sheinbein's attorneys have told appeals judges that he would admit to killing Tello but that he would raise questions regarding his mental health if tried in Israel.
Trying Sheinbein in Israel also could favor the defense because prosecution witnesses could not be forced to travel to Tel Aviv to testify. Furthermore, a defendant's chances typically are considered stronger when the people who pass judgment on him do not live where the crime, especially a heinous one, was committed, the legal specialists said.
Samuel Sheinbein's father, Sol Sheinbein, who is accused of helping his son flee to Israel after Tello's murder, also benefits from the high court's ruling. The patent lawyer, who moved to Tel Aviv shortly after his son fled there, now can stay in Israel with his son instead of having to choose between being with him at a trial and being arrested himself. Sol Sheinbein has been indicted in Maryland for obstructing an investigation but is not subject to extradition because it is a misdemeanor.
"I think Israel was the best choice [Samuel Sheinbein and his family] could have made if their motive was to soften any punishment," said Mortimer Sellers, director of the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
"Presumably he wouldn't have gone there or they [his family] would have urged him to come back if their motive wasn't to avoid justice in the United States," Sellers said.
Asked whether Sheinbein is better off standing trial in Israel, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler (D) said: "He's out [of prison] in his mid-thirties there, and he possibly wouldn't have seen the light of day again here. That's the bottom line."
Israel's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Sheinbein is an Israeli citizen and could not be extradited to the United States even though the youth had never lived in Israel. Samuel Sheinbein claimed citizenship through his father, who lived in Wheaton but had an Israeli passport. He was born in British-ruled Palestine before Israel became a country.
The Israeli ruling disappointed federal and Montgomery authorities and prompted outrage from Tello's family and other supporters of the victim. Last night, about 70 people, including Tello's mother and some Latino activists met at El Tazumal Restaurant in Silver Spring to protest and discuss the Sheinbein ruling. Another protest is planned for 5 p.m. today at the courthouse in Rockville.
Several lawyers said Sheinbein's family may have wanted him tried in Israel because they feared he would be hurt in a U.S. prison by a Latino gang seeking to avenge Tello's murder. A Sheinbein family attorney said there wasn't enough time for the family to consider that when Sheinbein fled to Israel.
Under the Israeli decision, Samuel Sheinbein will be tried for Tello's murder before an Israeli court of three judges. Israel's Justice Ministry said that by law, Sheinbein had to be indicted within five days of the ruling, or by Tuesday.
Michael V. Statham, who was attorney for Sheinbein co-defendant Aaron B. Needle before Needle hanged himself in his jail cell, said he believes Sheinbein's family had banked all along on the Israeli Supreme Court upholding Sheinbein's citizenship.
"I don't think there was any other motivation than helping him avoid facing these charges in this country," Statham said.
Paul Stein, an attorney for the Sheinbein family, said it is unfair and inaccurate to view the teenager's 17-month extradition fight as an attempt to elude American justice. Sol Sheinbein was thinking about his son's safety, not his legal strategy, when he bought Samuel Sheinbein a round-trip plane ticket to Israel.
Sol Sheinbein feared his son and Needle would commit suicide together in New York City, where they drove shortly after police say Tello was killed, Stein said. Sol Sheinbein wanted to get his son away from Needle and to the safety of relatives in Israel, Stein said.
After learning that Montgomery police had a warrant for Samuel's arrest, Sol Sheinbein sent his other son, Robert, to Israel to bring Samuel back, but Samuel decided to stay there. Then Sol Sheinbein made a fatherly decision to protect his son, Stein said.
"Certainly in hindsight someone could say . . . he'll only get a maximum of 20 years there and he could get life here," Stein said. "That's factual, but to say that's the reason for sending him there is a major jump.
"I don't think they ever thought that far ahead," Stein said. "This thing was breaking so quickly."
At last night's protest, Cecilia Ivette Castellanos, president of the Montgomery County Hispanic Democratic Club, said she felt the U.S. government would have imposed sanctions on a Hispanic nation that refused to extradite a murder suspect.
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
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