Samuel Sheinbein, the Montgomery County teenager who fled to Israel after the 1997 killing and dismemberment of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., has agreed to plead guilty to murder there and receive a 24-year sentence in an Israeli prison, authorities said yesterday.
Under the agreement, which a panel of Israeli judges must approve, Sheinbein, 19, could be paroled when he is 33. He could still be tried for murder in Montgomery County if he ever returned to this country.
Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, who said he played no role in the negotiations between Israeli prosecutors and defense attorneys, announced the agreement yesterday and called the deal "an absolute outrage" because Sheinbein could have "spent the rest of his life behind bars" if extradited and convicted of first-degree murder in the United States.
David Libai, Sheinbein's Israeli attorney, could not be reached for comment.
Tello's family could not be reached for comment yesterday, but at a news conference in Rockville, Gansler paraphrased a statement in which the family said "justice has not been achieved in this case."
"Mr. Sheinbein and his family have been able to manipulate the justice system of Israel and the U.S. to escape the justice of serving the life sentence without the possibility of parole," Gansler quoted the family as saying.
Sheinbein was 17 at the time Tello, 19, was killed and thus could not be sentenced to death in Maryland even if convicted of first-degree murder.
Israel officials believe Sheinbein's recommended sentence would be the stiffest imposed on a minor charged with murder in their country's 50-year history and would rival those given to adults in similar circumstances there, according to a source in the Israeli prosecutor's office.
"We think it's an excellent agreement," the source said.
Even as Gansler called the plea bargain outrageous, he described it as "a good agreement" because "there was always a chance of an acquittal" in Israel, where Sheinbein was scheduled to stand trial in October. "It's not a complete miscarriage of justice," Gansler said.
The deal, if approved, would spare Israel the cost and logistical difficulty of transporting the physical evidence and dozens of witnesses to a courtroom 5,900 miles from the scene of the crime. It also might close a nettlesome chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations that began after Sheinbein was arrested in Israel shortly after the 1997 killing and claimed he was a citizen through his father and could not be extradited. Israel's highest court ultimately agreed that Sheinbein was an Israeli citizen and could not be extradited.
At the news conference, Gansler said Israeli prosecutors told him in a fax Monday night that Sheinbein will plead guilty Sept. 2 to all 10 "facts" of the case brought against him in Israel in connection with Tello's death. Sheinbein had been expected to do so at a hearing last month, but instead admitted only that he had picked up Tello in a car and had burned and cut up his body, not that he had killed him. Libai said at the time that it was "a mystery" who had killed Tello and how.
Now, Gansler said, Sheinbein has agreed to admit that he did, along with Aaron Needle, then 17, who hanged himself in the Montgomery County jail shortly before jury selection was scheduled to begin in his trial last year.
Gansler said he was confident the new agreement "will go through," though it still must be approved by three Israeli judges, who can reduce the 24-year sentence or add to it. In a statement, the Israeli Justice Ministry said it had asked "the Americans to refrain from publishing" information about "understandings with the defense," and the Israeli prosecution source said the reason was to avoid influencing the judges' decision about whether to accept the deal.
At the Sept. 2 hearing, Sheinbein will be required to state only whether he accepts or denies the facts of the Israeli indictment. He will not have to elaborate on a motive, several legal experts said yesterday.
According to Gansler, Sheinbein could be released after serving two-thirds of the 24 years. With credit for the two years he has been incarcerated in Israel awaiting trial, that means he could be free in 2013. Gansler said that Israel law also permits weekend furloughs after a prisoner has served one-quarter of his sentence, which in this case would be six years. Officials said Sheinbein will be credited for the two years he has been in custody in Israel, meaning he would be eligible for furloughs four years from now. A source in the Israeli prosecutor's office said that furloughs are not automatic.
"It's sad that he's gotten away with it," said Grace Rivera, a longtime Montgomery County Latino activist and one of many who had protested how Israeli officials have handled the case. "He'll be pretty young, really, when he gets out. He'll have his whole life ahead of him."
Rivera added: "To think that he could [soon] be having visits with his family . . . and the Tello family, God bless them, is never going to see their Freddy again."
"I'm really disappointed," said Henry Quintero, director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force of Maryland. "It's a reflection of how the laws of Israel were manipulated by the defense team there."
But Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor whom the Israeli Justice Ministry suggested that a reporter contact for additional comment, said in an interview from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., that "this is a very harsh plea bargain" that he would not have advised Sheinbein to take.
"If I were Sheinbein's attorney, I think I would have preferred to face American justice," Dershowitz said, because he might have wound up with a lighter sentence.
Dershowitz said he was not a spokesman for the Israel government. "I've spoken about this on a number of shows . . . and they know I'm knowledgeable about it."
With the assistance of his father, Sol, a Maryland lawyer, Sheinbein flew from New York City to Israel three days after a real estate agent discovered Tello's charred body wrapped in a garbage bag in the garage of a house for sale in Aspen Hill, near the Sheinbein family home.
Sheinbein's father, who now lives in Israel, has been charged in Montgomery County with misdemeanors in connection with his son's flight. Misdemeanors are not extraditable offenses.
At the July hearing in Israel, Samuel Sheinbein admitted that he and Needle, who were friends of Tello's, picked him up in a car about 6 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1997. Israeli prosecutors allege that the youths strangled Tello in the car, beat him in the head and cut him on the neck and chest.
The motive, Gansler has said, was "practice." Sheinbein had been planning to kill someone else, whom Gansler would not name, and he killed Tello for the "thrill" and as a "practice murder," Gansler has said.
After the killing, Needle and Sheinbein moved the body to Sheinbein's family home in Aspen Hill and, two days later, to the garage of the vacant home, where they used a power saw to cut off Tello's limbs, according to Libai.
Samuel Sheinbein was born in this country, had never lived in Israel and cannot speak Hebrew. But by a 3 to 2 vote, the Israeli supreme court ruled that he has citizenship through his father, who was born in British-ruled Palestine.
Many Israelis have been as dismayed as Americans that Sheinbein could not be extradited. Earlier this year, the Knesset changed Israeli law so that anyone who has Israeli citizenship but does not live in the country can be extradited, tried and punished abroad.
However, the new law does not apply to Sheinbein.
Staff writer Fern Shen and special correspondent Ramit Plushnick in Israel contributed to this report.