Update - Leak of Sheinbein Plea Bargain Angers Israelis

July 7, 2008 - 7:07 PM

1st add: Includes quotes from Sheinbein lawyer and Maryland prosecutor Douglas Gansler, plus new quotes from Rubinstein.

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Unexpected revelations that a plea bargain was being arranged for Samuel Sheinbein, the American teenager who fled to Israel to avoid prosecution in the US after being charged in the murder and dismemberment of a Maryland teenager, has drawn fire from both the Israel State Attorney's office and one of Sheinbein's lawyers.

In response to Tuesday's announcement by Maryland prosecutors that Sheinbein had bargained for a 24-year prison sentence, Israel's Attorney General, Elyakim Rubinstein spoke to reporters about the case Wednesday, emphasizing the seriousness with which Israel viewed the case. "This is an unusual press briefing. Normally we don't comment on cases that are pending."

The unanticipated news of the plea bargain by Maryland officials drew fire from Israeli prosecutors. "We expect our colleagues in the United States to respect our court and our prosecution the same way we respect them," Rubinstein said. "We sent the plea bargain to the prosecutor in Maryland as a cordiality, as a matter of working relations. He made it public. We didn't feel it was proper. We felt it was a breach of professional faith. Nevertheless, that's a fact of life."

One of Sheinbein's lawyers, Attorney Eitan Maoz, also expressed criticism of the decision by Maryland prosecutors to announce the deal. Maoz told CNSNews.com that he could not comment on the plea itself, but said the public revelation before the court hearing showed "disrespect to the Israeli system."

Sheinbein's guilty plea is due to be entered at the Tel Aviv District Court on September 2. The court will then decide if it accepts the plea bargain or not.

Sheinbein, an American teenager accused of the murder and dismemberment of 19-year-old Alfred Tello, fled to Israel to escape arrest nearly two years ago. He was 17 at the time, a minor under Israeli law. Although he had never lived in Israel, he was able to be recognized as an Israeli because his father is an Israeli citizen, and thus he avoided extradition.

Rubinstein said he identified with the "agony" of the Tello family, which had "lost their son in a very cruel and vicious murder."

"The Israeli prosecution, we all felt that he should be extradited," Rubinstein said. "Our legal position was that he was not an Israeli citizen and at that time we could not extradite an Israeli citizen - period."

Following lengthy court battles which placed Israel in an awkward position and angered the US, the Israeli high court upheld the 1978 amendment to the Extradition Law, which forbids Israelis to be extradited but allows them to be tried and imprisoned in Israel for crimes committed in other countries. That law has since been changed.

After the Israeli Supreme Court ruling against the extradition, Israel was then responsible to try Sheinbein and an indictment was submitted to the Tel Aviv district court. A plea bargain was also suggested.

"The plea is in the upper limits of sentencing for murders by minors," said Rubinstein. "I gave an example before: two kids who murdered a cab driver a number of years ago in the Tel Aviv area were sentenced to 16 years in jail. What has been achieved here in the plea is far higher."

Rubinstein conceded that if he took the Sheinbein case to trial, he could probably get a life sentence, though he added that life sentences are usually commuted to 25-30 years in prison.

According to reports, Maryland prosecutor Douglas Gansler said that "Mr. Sheinbein will plead guilty for his involvement in the murder as well as his involvement in the dismemberment of Alfredo Tello." In exchange he will be sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Under Israeli law, Sheinbein, now 19, will be eligible for parole in 16 years, with the possibility of weekend furloughs from the prison in six years.

"We're not pleased with the result, because its still a very short sentence in terms of what he would have gotten here," Gansler said. But Rubinstein disagreed, saying "In (some of) the United States, this plea would have been in the spectrum of what could have happened in the court. Other states would have had a harsher system."

Rubinstein pointed out that parole after two-thirds of a sentence, while common, is not automatic, and said, "even the American prosecutor said that in terms of the Israeli system as he learned it, 'it is not a bad plea.'"

"What we would like is the understanding of the American public towards the Israeli public that this case is being treated as a vicious murder both in trying to get the extradition but also by getting a plea which is in a very upper limit of criminal cases of minors."

Just last month Sheinbein pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. But Gansler said the reason for the switch was because the US prosecution has overwhelming evidence against him including DNA, eyewitnesses and a "recipe" for murder, which Sheinbein had allegedly written.