The lead prosecutor in the strange case of Samuel Sheinbein — the man who would have prosecuted the Maryland teenager had he not fled to Israel after a horrific 1997 murder in an affluent Washington suburb — expressed frustration this week with what he termed a series of blunders by Israeli courts.
Maryland States Attorney Douglas Gansler, who is Jewish, also exhibited concern about the impact of the case on Israel’s image in this country. Gansler spent several weeks on a kibbutz as a teenager, and said his concern is both professional and personal.
“It’s embarrassing for Israel,” he said in an interview. “I’m Jewish, but I have to take the perspective that what’s right is right — and Israel is wrong here.
“Part of the credibility of
a nation is to understand and acknowledge when it is doing something wrong. For me to say that Israel is not wrong because I’m Jewish would be disingenuous.”
But Gansler, who in November was elected states attorney for Montgomery County, also said that he has received good cooperation from Israeli law enforcement authorities who are eager to see justice done in the Sheinbein case.
Last week the case erupted anew when Israel’s Supreme Court narrowly overruled a lower court decision permitting the extradition of Sheinbein, 18, who fled to Israel just after the murder and dismemberment of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. in September 1997.
Sheinbein and a friend, Aaron Benjamin Needle, were accused in Tello’s death. Needle committed suicide last year in his jail cell two days before the scheduled start of his trial. Both had attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.
An Israeli law passed in the 1970s bars the extradition of citizens. Sol Sheinbein, a patent attorney and the accused murderer’s father, left Israel before independence and before the 1952 Citizenship Law, but the court ruled that at least technically he remains an Israeli citizen.
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, citing the potential impact of the case on U.S.-Israel relations and the danger that the ruling could spur a flood of Jewish criminals seeking sanctuary in Israel, this week took the unusual step of asking the court to reconsider its ruling.
A decision whether to rehear the case will take at least a week, Gansler said.
Rubinstein’s petition to the court “is great news,” Gansler said. “Obviously the Israeli courts were wrong here, and this will give them an opportunity to make it right.”
The law barring extradition “was not intended to protect someone like Samuel Sheinbein, who’s no more of an Israeli citizen than I am,” he said. “We’re both Jews, we’ve both been to Israel on vacation, but he has not availed himself of the privileges of citizenship at any time, so he should not be allowed to use Israel to elude justice.”
And the court erred by ruling that the father retained citizenship rights, he said.
“Even given that the law is flawed — and that they were willing to openly violate their treaty with the United States — it seems to me they blew it in that Sol Sheinbein is not an Israeli citizen in any real sense.”
Gansler expressed the hope that the court may focus on the question of the father’s citizenship if it rehears the case.
The attorney, who belongs to a suburban Washington synagogue, said Israel’s missteps in the Sheinbein affair disturb him on a personal level.
“I am disappointed in Israel because this ruling didn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s not even a close call. It looks bad for the Jewish people because the United States was in the forefront of the establishment of Israel, and has been its biggest ally through history.”
Other countries have laws barring extradition of their citizens for crimes committed elsewhere, but Israel is the only one that also has a formal extradition treaty with the United States, he said.
“That’s the difference. They passed a law under [former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin that basically trumps the extradition laws. Israel openly and unabashedly violated its own treaty with us,” Gansler said.
If the Supreme Court refuses to reconsider the case, Sheinbein will be tried in Israel, with Maryland prosecutors playing a supporting role. Gansler said his staff will work closely with Israeli prosecutors, but that a trial in Israel would be a “logistical nightmare.”
“We have a very strong case here,” he said. “but how strong can it be when we can’t subpoena witnesses to Israel? We hope we will still prevail but it’s a tremendous complication, and so unnecessary.”
If convicted in Israel, Sheinbein faces a maximum sentence of 20 years, with parole likely in only 14. In Maryland he would have faced the possibility of a life sentence, and prosecutors could have argued for a no-parole sentence.
The likelihood that Sheinbein will receive a much lighter sentence in Israel has fueled the rage of Hispanic leaders in Washington.
“The danger is that this anger could temporarily freeze our relations with a very important group in our community,” said Murray Tenenbaum, director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, a group that has tried to bring Jewish and Hispanic groups together in the wake of the Sheinbein case.
Last week’s Israeli Supreme Court decision provoked an angry response from the Justice Department, although Attorney General Janet Reno promised to work closely with Israeli prosecutors if Sheinbein is tried there.
But on Capitol Hill, the reaction was surprisingly muted, despite last year’s threats by congressional appropriators to hold up Israel’s foreign aid if Sheinbein wasn’t returned to face trial.
Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee and one of the legislators who temporarily blocked aid in 1997, signaled last week that he would not wield the aid weapon this time around.
This week pro-Israel lobbyists expressed confidence that the Sheinbein extradition controversy will not affect either Israel’s regular aid allotment or the supplementary appropriation the administration has requested.