The diplomatic sparring over Samuel Sheinbein's Israeli plea agreement intensified yesterday as Israeli officials accused the Maryland prosecutor of betraying their confidence by announcing the deal and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler countered that the Israeli prosecutor had agreed to the public disclosure.
Gansler revealed Tuesday that Sheinbein was prepared to plead guilty to murder in Israel, to which he fled in 1997, three days after the burned and dismembered body of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 17, was found in the garage of a Montgomery County home.
Gansler said Israeli prosecutors told him that in return for the guilty plea, they had agreed to recommend that Sheinbein serve a 24-year prison sentence in Israel.
Irit Kohn, director of the Israeli Justice Minstry's Department of International Affairs, told Gansler in a letter released yesterday that "we view the early publication of the agreement and its details at this time, despite our request not to do so, as a breach of professional faith."
In a reply yesterday, Gansler wrote Kohn that he was "shocked" at being excluded from plea negotiations and said that he had scheduled his news conference only after being "assured" by Hadassah Naor, the Israeli prosecutor handling the case, that the Israelis did not object.
Despite all the acrimony, several legal experts said yesterday they did not believe that disclosure of the details of the plea agreement would affect it.
Gansler has already said he will not drop the Maryland murder indictment against Sheinbein, meaning that the teenager could be tried for Tello's death if he ever returned to this country. Gansler disclosed in an interview yesterday that he has "taken steps to determine the feasibility" of seeking to disbar Sheinbein's lawyer father, Sol, who helped his son flee to Israel.
Sol Sheinbein, a former patent and trademark attorney for the U.S. government who now lives in Israel and represents U.S. companies there, has been charged in Montgomery County with misdemeanors in connection with his son's flight. An arrest warrant for Sol Sheinbein has been issued, but misdemeanors are not extraditable offenses.
"Can you get someone disbarred based on a warrant? Can we accomplish that? It's something that we're looking into," Gansler said.
Samuel Sheinbein, 19, is scheduled at a Sept. 2 hearing to admit to all facts alleged in the 10-count Israeli indictment. A three-judge panel assigned to hear the case must decide whether to accept the plea and whether to go along with the sentence.
David Libai, Sheinbein's Israeli attorney, could not be reached for comment yesterday and has made no statement about the plea agreement.
Sheinbein is in Israeli custody because that country's highest court has ruled he is an Israeli citizen through his father and that he cannot be extradited to the United States, despite an extradition treaty, because of an Israeli law that prohibits extradition of citizens.
Gansler denounced the plea, negotiated without involvement of the U.S. government or his office, calling it an "absolute outrage"--criticism that brought sharp rebuke yesterday from the Israeli attorney general. Gansler said that if Sheinbein had been tried and convicted in Maryland, he would have been sentenced to life in prison and would not have been eligible for parole at 33, as he will be under the recommended Israeli sentence.
Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said the sentence recommended for Sheinbein is harsh, considering sentencing standards in Israel. "This plea is more than acceptable from our point. It is more than reasonable," he said. "This is not Maryland."
And he noted that although his office has "always had good relations with [U.S.] federal prosecutors . . . our experience with some states is different."
But U.S. Justice and State Department officials noted that Gansler is the proper American official to deal with the Sheinbein case. Justice Department spokesman John K. Russell said that the department had had "nothing to do with this matter." And State Department spokesman James Foley said, "It's a judicial legal proceeding; it's not something that the State Department has been involved in."
Rubinstein said his office had cooperated fully with the Maryland prosecutors and seemed to suggest that Gansler was playing to public opinion.
There has been harsh criticism, both in this country and in Israel, of Israel's refusal to return Sheinbein to Maryland for prosecution. At one point, Congress threatened to withhold American aid to Israel if the Maryland teenager were not returned. Even members of the Israeli court questioned whether refusing to return Sheinbein could make their country a haven for Jewish criminals.
The latest strife over the Sheinbein case was set off late Monday when Israeli officials notified Gansler that an agreement had been reached with Sheinbein. A portion of the notification letter--the only portion released by the Israeli Justice Ministry--said that "while the . . . developments have not yet been formally presented to the court, we felt it proper to inform you of this development at this stage, and we would appreciate your refraining from making these developments public before they are in fact presented formally to the court."
Gansler said yesterday that after receiving the notification about 6 p.m. Monday (midnight in Israel), he and others participated in a conference call Tuesday morning with Naor, the Israeli prosecutor handling the case. Gansler said Naor told him that the judges had been formally notified and that Sheinbein's hearing date had been rescheduled from October to Sept. 2. Gansler said he was told "it was okay" to discuss the plea publicly.
"We said to them, 'When are you planning on telling the press about this? There's a great deal of concern in this community, and the public has a right to know.' They said you can do this now. Hadassah Naor said go ahead," Gansler said.
In his reply to Kohn, Gansler said he was "dismayed" that he was being accused of improper conduct. He said that during his conversation Tuesday with Naor, she said "that the Israelis' position on pretrial publicity had changed now that the court had been informed and had formally agreed to heed the plea." He said he "repeatedly asked Ms. Naor at this time if we were now free to disclose the information regarding the plea, and Ms. Naor assured us that we could."
Staff writer Steven Gray reported from Montgomery County, and special correspondent Mike O'Connor reported from Israel. Metro staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Under a plea deal, Samuel Sheinbein is to plead guilty in Israel to murder. He fled there after the Maryland slaying.