Samuel Sheinbein answered ken--"yes" in Hebrew--three times in a Tel Aviv court yesterday, and by doing so admitted he strangled Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. and dismembered and burned Tello's body two years ago in Montgomery County. A three-judge panel then convicted him of premeditated murder.
The simple exchange in a courtroom packed with reporters and television cameras ended an acrimonious international struggle over where Sheinbein should be prosecuted, but it did not quell the controversy over his plea agreement in the case.
"Based on what the defendant admitted to and based on the testimony of his father before the Maryland grand jury, we convict the defendant of premeditated murder," said Tel Aviv District Court President Judge Uri Goren, head of a three-judge panel.
Although Israeli prosecutors recommended a 24-year prison sentence for the Maryland teenager, the judges gave no indication of what their sentence will be. They are not bound by the recommendation and have wide discretion in determining Sheinbein's sentence.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, speaking at an afternoon news conference in Rockville, said: "Whether we're disappointed or not is irrelevant. They reached an agreement for a 24-year sentence."
But Gansler said he hopes that the judges will depart from the plea agreement and impose a life sentence, although life sentences are usually commuted to 30 years.
"We don't consider this completely over yet," Gansler said.
The judges set an Oct. 11 hearing to receive a social worker's report into Sheinbein's background, a study required under Israeli law before a juvenile can be sentenced. Gansler said the judges could impose sentence Oct. 11 or at a separate hearing that probably would take place one week later.
If the judges sentenced Sheinbein--now 19--to 24 years, it apparently would be the stiffest sentence ever given to a juvenile in Israel. Sheinbein still would be eligible for parole by the time he is 33. He would also be eligible for weekend furloughs from prison in as little as four years, Gansler said.
Tello's relatives declined to comment on the plea. Gansler said they reacted with "continued frustration and resignation" at "the ability of Mr. Sheinbein to manipulate the Israeli legal system."
Tello's uncle had planned to attend the hearing at Israeli prosecutors' expense but decided instead to go to the sentencing, Gansler said. Tello's mother, Eliette Ramos, did not want to attend either proceeding, he said.
Mobbed as usual by cameras as he entered the courtroom, Sheinbein remained stony-faced throughout yesterday's hour-long hearing, moving only when the judge asked him to stand and respond to the charges. His parents, who attended almost every session during the year-long extradition hearing, were not present in the media-packed courtroom.
The judges took the unusual step of allowing the proceedings to be taped by television and radio crews because of the considerable media interest in the case.
Sheinbein did not make a statement to the court and did not respond to reporters' questions shouted at him as he entered and exited the courtroom.
Standing handcuffed between two police officers, Sheinbein showed no emotion as the judges read him passages of the indictment describing how he and his friend Aaron Needle, 17, strangled and beat Tello, 19, and used a Mikita power saw to cut off his arms and legs in September 1997.
When the judges asked at three different points in the indictment whether he admitted to those facts, Sheinbein answered ken each time.
However, as set forth in the plea agreement, Sheinbein did not admit to cutting Tello on the neck or chest or to hiding his arms and legs, which have never been found.
Sheinbein's attorney, former justice minister David Libai, would not answer reporters' questions about why those facts, which were included in the original indictment, were omitted.
Also as part of the plea agreement, the judges received a copy of the testimony that Sheinbein's father, Sol, gave before the Montgomery County grand jury that indicted Samuel Sheinbein in 1997.
Sol Sheinbein told the grand jury that his son killed Tello to protect Needle after Tello tried to rob Needle, but Israeli and Montgomery prosecutors have rejected that account.
Sheinbein fled to Israel a few days after Tello's charred and mutilated body was discovered Sept. 19, 1997, in the garage of a vacant home in Sheinbein's Aspen Hill neighborhood. After a year-long extradition battle that strained U.S.-Israeli relations, the Israeli Supreme Court declared him an Israeli citizen through his father and, therefore, immune from extradition to other countries to stand trial.
Sol Sheinbein, who now lives in Israel, was charged in Montgomery with helping his son flee to Israel during the police investigation, but he will not be prosecuted unless he returns to the United States, because the charges are misdemeanors.
Needle hanged himself last year in his Montgomery jail cell, two days before jury selection was to have begun in his trial.
Montgomery prosecutors said that they also will prosecute Samuel Sheinbein if he ever returns to the United States. Gansler said that under a 1978 Israeli law, citizens who are not extradited cannot claim double jeopardy in any subsequent prosecution where the original charges were filed.
Asked whether he believes Sheinbein will still be a threat when he completes his Israeli sentence, James Trusty, one of the assistant state's attorneys who would have prosecuted the case in Maryland, said: "If you have a person capable of that kind of crime--certainly with the depravity of this--he's a threat as long as he walks the earth."
Special correspondent Plushnick reported from Tel Aviv, and staff writer Shaver reported from Montgomery County.
CAPTION: Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said he hopes the Israeli judges will depart from the plea agreement and impose a life sentence, though life sentences are usually commuted to 30 years.
CAPTION: Samuel Sheinbein enters an Israeli court, where he admitted a 1997 Montgomery County murder.