Samuel Sheinbein, the Montgomery County teenager who pleaded guilty last month to killing and dismembering Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. in Maryland two years ago, believes he deserves a harsh prison sentence, his attorney told an Israeli court today.
Sheinbein's attorney, former justice minister David Libai, made the comments in a sentencing hearing before the three-judge District Court panel hearing the case and joined with Israeli prosecutors in urging the panel to accept the plea agreement they had reached with Sheinbein.
The agreement provides for Sheinbein, 19, to be sentenced to 24 years in prison, an unusually lengthy term here but less than the life sentence to which the teenager would have been subject had he pleaded guilty to similar charges in Maryland.
"He thinks he deserves the punishment," Libai said. "Even though it is a harsh sentence, he thinks the plea-bargain sentencing gives him hope . . . and without that hope he will be lost."
But Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said today's arguments gave Montgomery prosecutors a "kernel of optimism" that Israeli lawyers on both sides of the case believe the judges might give Sheinbein a stiffer sentence than the 24 years agreed to in the plea deal.
"We'd always been led to believe that 24 years was a done deal," Gansler said. "The fact that they felt the need to argue at such great length with such vehemence suggests to me that they're concerned the judges might go above those 24 years."
Gansler, who has criticized the agreement as too lenient, said that a 24-year sentence would make Sheinbein eligible for parole in Israel in 14 years--at age 33--and eligible for weekend furloughs from prison in four years.
Under Israeli law, the court is not bound by the plea agreement, and the judges are free to increase or reduce the term as they see fit.
The judges, who set sentencing for Oct. 24, offered no response to today's proceedings and no hint as to how they will act on the plea bargain. However, one of them, Edmund Levy, did ask what maximum sentence Sheinbein would face if convicted in a Maryland court.
Sheinbein, dressed in slacks and a plaid shirt, did not change his somber expression throughout today's proceedings. Occasionally he glanced at his attorney as he spoke, but he did not flinch when dozens of cameramen pushed and shoved to take his picture.
Sheinbein's parents, Solomon and Victoria, sat in court today listening carefully to his attorney's arguments in favor of the 24-year sentence. Victoria Sheinbein approached her son and seemed to reach out to him as he was led, handcuffed, out of court.
Within days of the slaying on Sept. 16, 1997, Sheinbein fled to Israel with the help of his father, who holds an Israeli passport. After a lengthy court battle, the Israeli Supreme Court determined that because of his father's citizenship, Sheinbein also had a legitimate claim to Israeli citizenship and therefore could not be extradited to stand trial in the United States.
Libai told the court that Sheinbein agreed to plead guilty, in part, because he did not want his father and brother to have to testify in a trial. The central issue for the sides when discussing the plea bargain was to "quickly end this trial," Libai said.
Both sides told the court that the plea-bargain agreement averts what would have been an exceptionally complex trial. It would have involved soliciting testimony from about 80 witnesses, most of whom are in the United States and cannot be forced to travel to Israel to testify.
In court today, both sides argued that because Sheinbein was a minor at the time Tello was killed, their proposed 24-year sentence is much harsher than the average 15-year sentence for Israeli minors convicted of murder. The attorneys said Sheinbein deserved a longer term than the average because of the brutality and coldbloodedness of the murder.
In support of that view, the prosecutor recounted the brutal details of the murder, the defendant's purchase of a power saw to dismember the victim's body and the burning of the torso.
"Because we have heard no motives for the murder, it makes it even more difficult to digest these actions," prosecutor Hadassah Naor told the court.
Naor added, "We need to take into consideration the lack of respect for human life exhibited in these actions and the suffering the victim's family underwent, especially since the body was so brutally desecrated after death."
In the past month, the judges were presented with a confidential report on Sheinbein's mental and emotional state, including psychiatric assessments. The report is not part of the public record, but Libai reiterated that after Sheinbein arrived in Israel in 1997, he attempted suicide and was treated at a psychiatric hospital. He said doctors described Sheinbein then as being in a "psychotic state."
In prison, Sheinbein has agreed to psychological and psychiatric treatment for his "antisocial" behavior, Libai said. He said that other than Aaron Needle, his co-defendant in the murder case who hanged himself in the Montgomery County detention center, Sheinbein has never had close friends.
"He is very remorseful, but he is very closed, very internal," Libai said in an interview after today's hearing. "He has always been this way. He has difficulty communicating with people."
Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report from Montgomery County.