Israeli official defends plea bargain for American teen accused of murder

JERUSALEM, Aug. 25 (JTA) — Israel’s attorney general is rejecting U.S. prosecutors’ criticism of a plea bargain reached with an American teen-ager who fled to Israel after a 1997 murder in Maryland. Elyakim Rubinstein told a news conference Wednesday that the deal, in which Samuel Sheinbein agreed to plead guilty to the brutal murder of 19-year-old Alfredo Tello Jr. in exchange for a 24-year prison sentence, was extremely harsh by Israeli standards. Stressing that Israeli and American legal systems are not identical, Rubinstein said the sentence is the maximum for a crime committed by a minor. He added that life sentences for adult criminals are often commuted to 25 years. “The court has the authority to review” the plea bargain “and to accept it, which is usually done,” Rubinstein said. “It is also authorized to consider otherwise, and the accused know this.” Regarding protests from U.S. prosecutors that Sheinbein could be paroled after serving two-thirds of his sentence, Rubinstein said, “The court will consider the criminal act and its nature, not only good behavior, so we don’t know what will happen when Sheinbein seeks early release.” The attorney general was also critical of Maryland prosecutors who disclosed details of the deal prior to the Sept. 2 hearing, when Sheinbein was due to enter his plea in a Tel Aviv court. “We expect the American prosecutors and their statements to be more collegial, as we were to them,” he said. Sheinbein, 18, fled to Israel days after the burned and dismembered body of Tello was found in the garage of an unoccupied house in a Maryland suburb in September 1997. Though he had never visited Israel before fleeing there, he claimed Israeli citizenship through his father, who was born in prestate Palestine. Israeli courts upheld the claim and barred his extradition to the United States in accordance with existing Israeli law against handing over citizens who committed crimes abroad. The ruling led to a long extradition battle between Israel and the United States that strained political relations. At the height of the dispute, some U.S. lawmakers had threatened to press Congress to cut Israel’s annual $3 billion in aid if Sheinbein was not handed over. The Sheinbein case spurred the Knesset to pass a law in April making it easier to extradite Israeli citizens charged with committing crimes abroad. Under the new law, those who hold Israeli citizenship but are not residents of the country can be extradited, while residents are tried in the Jewish state. Sheinbein’s alleged co-conspirator, Aaron Benjamin Needle, hung himself in prison in a Maryland prison in April 1998, just days before his trial was scheduled to begin. The plea bargain was a reversal of Sheinbein’s previous plea, entered last month, when he denied premeditated murder, but admitted to dismembering and burning Tello’s body. Had he been convicted of the murder charge in Maryland, Sheinbein could have faced life in prison without parole. In Israel, he could be paroled after 16 years and entitled to weekend furloughs after six years. Douglas Gansler, Maryland’s state attorney, told the Associated Press that he is not pleased with the plea bargain and that Sheinbein would likely have received a life sentence in the United States. “We had a mountain of evidence, all of which would have been compelling,” Gansler said. The evidence included DNA, eyewitness accounts and a “recipe” to commit murder written by Sheinbein, he said. The plea bargain drew criticism in Israel as well. Meretz Knesset member Amnon Rubinstein, chairman of the Parliamentary Law and Legislative Committee, criticized Israeli prosecutors for reaching a plea bargain in such a politically charged case. “In the United States, if they sentence someone for murder, the punishment is very grave, either death or life imprisonment,” Rubinstein said. “Here it is easier to convict, but punishment is also lighter.” Rabbi Michael Melchior, who is the Cabinet member responsible for Israel-Diaspora relations, warned that the incident casts Israel in a poor light. He called the plea bargain “improper” from a legal and ethical standpoint. “Israel is turning into a kind of haven for criminals who have committed the most grave offenses, like this murder,” Melchior told Israel Radio. “The Jewish state should not be turned into a shelter. It is the wrong message.”

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