An Israeli court sentenced convicted murderer Samuel Sheinbein to 24 years in prison yesterday, saying the Maryland teenager had displayed "cruelty, wickedness and malice" in killing Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. in Montgomery County two years ago.
"The actual murder, together with the monstrous acts that were committed to the body, show that the sanctity of life and a person's dignity in both life and death are values to which the defendant attaches no significance," said Uri Goren, president of Tel Aviv District Court, reading in Hebrew from the sentencing document.
Sheinbein, slightly pale but impassive, stood flanked by police, his hands clasped behind his back, as the sentence was delivered.
"In light of his age, and in light of the severity of his actions, the defendant therefore deserves a severe and deterring punishment," Goren said.
Sheinbein will be eligible to apply for furloughs of 24 to 96 hours beginning in 2003 and to apply for parole in 2013, when he is 33. He is also eligible for conjugal visits immediately. There was no immediate decision on where Sheinbein will be imprisoned.
If he had been tried in Maryland, as both Israel and the United States wanted, he would have faced a maximum punishment of life in prison.
The sentence pronounced by the three-judge panel was the same recommended in a plea agreement between Sheinbein's attorneys and Israeli prosecutors last month. Under the agreement, Sheinbein, now 19, confessed to the murder and both sides avoided what would have been a trial of exceptional duration and complexity. But judges were not bound by the recommendation and could have sentenced Sheinbein to a shorter, or longer, prison term.
Tello's family declined to comment yesterday.
The sentencing concludes a two-year legal odyssey that began when Sheinbein, then 17, killed Tello, dismembered his body with a power saw, burned his torso and stashed it in an Aspen Hill garage near Sheinbein's home.
Days later, already a suspect in the killing, Sheinbein fled to Israel with the help of his father, Sol, who holds both U.S. and Israeli citizenship. The incident provoked a diplomatic furor, and in the lengthy court battle that followed, the United States and the Israeli government tried to have Sheinbein extradited to stand trial in Montgomery County, but they were blocked by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Aaron Needle, who was indicted with Sheinbein in Tello's death, committed suicide in the Montgomery County jail on the eve of his trial last year.
Maryland prosecutors said they were disappointed that the Israeli court didn't impose a stiffer sentence and expressed frustration that Sheinbein could be eligible for furloughs and parole while still a relatively young man.
"Any person who slashes another human being, strangles another human being, cuts off their arms and legs, torches the body, flees the country for absolutely no justifiable reason, in our view poses a threat for the rest of their life," said Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.
Gansler said he had held out hope that the Israeli judges would ignore the sentence recommended in the plea agreement and hand down a punishment of closer to 30 years in prison, which he said would have been comparable to a life sentence in Israel.
"I thought they would take this opportunity to bridge the gap," he said. "His sentence pales in comparison to what his sentence would have been in this country."
But the Israeli court said: "We did not find that the defendant received any excessive reduction of his punishment in this plea bargain, and possibly he did not receive any reduction at all, since the punishment agreed to by the parties is both significant and appropriate."
Gansler said that the Israeli government had offered to fly one of Tello's relatives to Tel Aviv for the sentencing but that the family declined.
"They continue to be frustrated by Mr. Sheinbein's manipulation of the Israeli and American legal systems," Gansler said.
Grace Rivera-Oven, a longtime Latino activist in Montgomery, said supporters of the Tello family were likewise angered by the outcome.
"The community is very disappointed, and certainly justice was not served," she said. "It's a mockery to our Constitution and our justice system."
But Israeli prosecutors defended the sentence yesterday.
"According to Israel law, this is definitely a severe punishment," prosecutor Hadassah Naor told reporters. "We respect the American court system, and we hope they respect ours."
She said that before Sheinbein is considered for furloughs or parole, Israeli authorities will take into account the severity of his crime, the potential danger he poses to others and his behavior in prison, among other factors.
She also noted that Sheinbein will receive psychological and psychiatric treatment in prison.
Jonathan Strum, who teaches a course on Israeli law at Georgetown University, said chances are slim that Israeli authorities will approve furloughs or parole for Sheinbein as soon as he becomes eligible.
"I think they're very sensitive to this case," Strum said of Israeli authorities. "Personally, I doubt he'll get paroled. If you're the parole board, would you want this guy walking the streets of your country?"
Sheinbein's attorney, former justice minister David Libai, called the outcome "responsible." "The fact that the Israeli court approved [the plea bargain] . . . showed we handled it in a reasonable way," he said.
Libai said Sheinbein's sentence was the most severe ever imposed on an Israeli convicted of committing murder as a minor. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said Israeli courts have imposed tougher sentences on Palestinian minors convicted of murdering Israelis.
In one such case, Tel Aviv District Court imposed a sentence of life plus 10 years on two Palestinian teenagers who at 17 knifed to death an Israeli on a bus in Tel Aviv in 1990 and tried to kill other passengers.
Israeli military courts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have also given harsher sentences to Palestinians convicted of taking part in the murder of Israelis, B'Tselem said.
Although Sheinbein had never been in Israel before, Libai argued successfully to the Israeli Supreme Court that his client was entitled to the protection of citizenship in the Jewish state--and barred from extradition--because his father had long claimed Israeli citizenship.
Since then, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has changed the law. Under the new law, a defendant seeking to avoid extradition must prove not only Israeli citizenship but also a "residential connection" to the country, which Sheinbein lacked.
The Tel Aviv court ruled Sheinbein's sentence would run from the day of his arrest in Israel, Sept. 28, 1997. He thus has 22 more years to serve on the 24-year sentence. He would be eligible for parole, however, after serving two-thirds of the full sentence, in 2013.
Although Sheinbein's case is now settled, criminal charges are still pending in Maryland against his father.
Sol Sheinbein, a former patent and trademark lawyer for the U.S. government who now lives in Israel and represents U.S. companies there, has been charged with obstructing a police investigation in connection with helping his son flee to Israel.
Because the charge is a misdemeanor, however, he will not be prosecuted unless he returns to the United States.
Gansler said Montgomery prosecutors have explored the possibility of attempting to revoke Sol Sheinbein's law license in the United States He acknowledged, however, that it would be difficult to disbar Sheinbein based on an arrest warrant instead of a conviction.
Before today's sentencing, Sheinbein's parents sat on a rear bench of the courtroom and declined to answer reporters' questions. His mother's eyes welled with tears, and at one point she told her husband to keep his head up.
"It's unfair," she told the Associated Press before the hearing. "It couldn't have happened to a better kid." She was then led away by her husband.
Hockstader reported from Tel Aviv, and Whitlock reported from Montgomery County.
Following are excerpts from the opinion of a three-judge panel of Tel Aviv District Court sentencing Samuel Sheinbein to 24 years in prison, as translated from Hebrew by the court:
"Before he escaped to Israel, the defendant had never visited this country and there is no doubt that his entanglement in criminal activity was the sole and immediate factor that motivated his coming to Israel .. . . Despite the fact that the act and its perpetrators lack, as stated, any connection to the State of Israel, the prosecution in Israel was obliged to handle the bringing to justice of the defendant for the current act of murder. From this point of view, we are dealing with a defendant who forced himself upon the Israeli justice system . . . .
"Another aspect that raised numerous doubts over the appropriate punishment for the defendant regards the cruelty, wickedness and malice that characterized the act of murder, as well as the acts that the defendant and his friend [Aaron] Needle committed to the body . . .. The defendant took a rope, wrapped it around the victim's neck and strangled him. And as if that was not enough, later came the shocking acts of desecration to the deceased's body, acts that are too horrendous to repeat and describe, and which show us to what depths the defendant sank and how inhuman he became at the time . . . .
"Any murder case, whether the murder is committed in Israel or in the United States, creates feelings of revulsion, distress and shock, and requires a punishment that fits the severity of the action. However, the shock is especially great when the act of murder is committed by a minor. The felony of murder is the most severe felony in the book of laws, and when we stand in front of a young man and learn that despite his young age, he has committed the most severe of felonies and has taken the life of another person in malicious circumstances, the abhorrence is twice as great . . . .
"The defendant before us was, at the time of the event, a little older than 17 years, and at least in terms of his age he had crossed the boundary of childhood and become a young man, very close to the age of adulthood. . . . The actual murder, together with the monstrous acts that were committed to the body, show that the sanctity of life and a person's dignity in both life and death are values to which the defendant attaches no significance. In light of his age, and in light of the severity of his actions, the defendant therefore deserves a severe and deterring punishment."
-- Uri Goren, president, Edmund E. Levy, Esther Hayut.