Final Effort to Extradite Sheinbein Fails
By Lee Hockstader and Susan Levine
An Israeli judge yesterday squashed a last-gasp attempt to extradite Samuel Sheinbein to the United States to stand trial in a 1997 dismemberment slaying, and Israel said it would charge the Maryland teenager with the crime today.
The decision by Judge Shlomo Levine, deputy president of Israel's Supreme Court, marks the finale, and the failure, of an 18-month legal effort by the governments of Israel and the United States to send Sheinbein back to Montgomery County for trial.
Sheinbein, who, though Jewish, has few ties with Israel, successfully fought the extradition attempt by arguing that he had inherited Israeli citizenship from his father, who holds an Israeli passport. Israeli law prohibits the extradition of its citizens.
In a five-page opinion handed down yesterday, Levine refused the Israeli government's request that the court reconsider its ruling last month barring Sheinbein's extradition. He said he was not convinced by the government's arguments that the circumstances of the case were sufficiently "rare and extraordinary" to merit convening a broader panel of judges to review the decision of the original five-judge panel.
"There is no justification to grant a rehearing," Levine wrote.
Today at 8:30 a.m. in Israel (2:30 a.m. EST), a new phase will begin in the case when Sheinbein is formally indicted in Tel Aviv District Court under Israeli law on murder charges in the death of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 19. If convicted, he could face a sentence of life in prison, although such punishments are typically reduced, often to 20 years or less, by the president of Israel.
Even if convicted in Israel, Sheinbein would face prosecution if he came back to the United States. With no statute of limitations, his indictment on murder charges in Montgomery will remain on the books indefinitely. "He can't return here," said State's Attorney Douglas Gansler.
Gansler said yesterday he had known that the request to have the entire court review the extradition decision was a long shot, given Israeli precedent. Still, "I was somewhat optimistic because it was so blatantly obvious that the court got the decision wrong. . . . I thought they would take an opportunity to right the wrong."
Sheinbein, now 18, is expected to remain in jail pending trial. With his parents' help, he fled to Israel three days after Tello's charred and mutilated torso was discovered in an Aspen Hill garage in September 1997. Sheinbein was swiftly detained by Israeli police. Shortly thereafter, he was charged with murder in Montgomery County.
David Libai, a former justice minister who is Sheinbein's attorney, said Sheinbein and his family welcomed the decision, but not to the point of exultation.
"Nobody celebrated, no champagne, but they are pleased," he said. "This is what all the struggle was about -- that he be able to continue to live in Israel even though he's jailed and detained. Now he must stand trial."
Sheinbein's father, Sol, has said his son's life would have been in jeopardy -- either from other inmates or by suicide -- had he been sent back to the United States for trial. "It was a question of life or death. That's how it was seen by the family," Libai said.
Sheinbein's codefendant, Aaron Needle, 18, committed suicide in the Montgomery County detention center shortly before he was to stand trial in the slaying last April.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel said Washington was disappointed with yesterday's ruling.
The State Department had no official reaction or statement, deferring instead to the Justice Department. "We're disappointed in the decision," said Myron Marlin, a Justice spokesman. "We had always hoped Mr. Sheinbein would be prosecuted in the community in which the crime occurred."
Tello's mother declined to comment, according to the man who answered the telephone at her residence yesterday.
But Luis Cabrenjo, president of Hispanics United of Montgomery County, voiced frustration and muted anger. His organization is part of a coalition of Latino groups that had pushed vocally for Sheinbein's return, and Cabrenjo thought there was "a fair chance" the Israeli judges would agree to reconsider the previous ruling.
"Well, what can we do?" he asked yesterday afternoon. "There's just going to be a feeling of injustice."
In the past, Libai has suggested that Sheinbein is likely to admit to the facts of the case but plead "diminished mental capacity," which is akin to a defense of temporary insanity. In an interview yesterday, he said Sheinbein would answer the indictment -- there is no simple plea of guilty or not guilty under the Israeli system -- and set out an outline of his defense "in a month or two." Nonetheless, Libai said he expects the case will be resolved before the end of the year.
However, the extradition process took longer than anyone predicted, and Israel will face daunting logistical complications in conducting a murder trial so far from the scene of the crime.
From this point on, the case will be handled according to Israeli rules of evidence and procedures. In practice, that may mean that many, or possibly all, prosecution witnesses will have to be re-interviewed by Israeli or U.S. police.
Israel will not be able to compel any witness to go to Israel to testify, but it will be able to request the deposition of witnesses in the United States. The result is likely to be time-consuming and extremely expensive, involving dozens of trans-Atlantic flights for prosecutors, police officers and other officials, in addition to hotel stays and technical snags. The cost of prosecution is expected to be borne by Israel.
"We hope that it won't take a long time, but we have to have all the evidence from the U.S.A., so it's not a regular case," said Orit Shemesh, spokeswoman for the Israeli Justice Ministry. "It's not only up to us here."
An Israeli Justice Ministry official called Gansler yesterday morning to discuss how the two sides must proceed together and "accomplish this terrifically difficult logistical nightmare," Gansler said. The immediate and key issues are what and how evidence must be transferred and which witnesses should testify during the trial before a three-judge panel in the District Court. The trial will be conducted in Hebrew, with translation for the Americans -- including the defendant, who does not speak Hebrew.
"It's their courts. It's their prosecutor who will be presenting the case," Gansler said. His office's role is essentially as consultant, and he wants to make sure his Israeli counterparts understand the requirements and context of the law Sheinbein would have faced had he been tried here.
"We really want to make sure he is convicted and serves the maximum amount of time," Gansler said.
The case became a cause celebre almost immediately after Sheinbein fled to Israel. Mindful of Israel's status as the leading recipient of American foreign aid, U.S. officials expressed outrage that Israel should harbor a fugitive from American justice. Israel, after initially signaling that it would fight extradition, reversed itself and argued that Sheinbein had no real ties to the Jewish state and therefore should not be accorded the protections and privileges of citizenship.
The Jerusalem District Court agreed and ordered Sheinbein's extradition. However, in a 3 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower-court judge Feb. 25 and ruled that Sheinbein was a citizen despite his tenuous relationship with the state and therefore could not be extradited.
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein appealed, asking the court to consider convening a larger panel of justices to reconsider the matter. Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who wrote the minority opinion and said that Sheinbein should be extradited, appointed Levine to consider the appeal.
In his opinion today, Levine noted that the court rarely reverses itself in rulings of a three-judge panel. "If a three-judge decision is reheard only in rare cases then certainly five-judge decisions are reheard only in 'the rarest of rare cases,' " he wrote. "The fact that something may be considered important or difficult does not in and of itself justify a rehearing," he said.
Hockstader reported from Jerusalem, and Levine reported from Washington.
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