Sheinbein sentenced to 24 years from Israeli court

Judge decries `inhuman' murder by Maryland teen

`Appropriate' punishment

Montgomery County prosecutors assail plea agreement

October 25, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel -- An Israeli judge denounced Samuel Sheinbein for an "inhuman" 1997 Montgomery County murder yesterday, but imposed a negotiated 24-year prison sentence that Maryland prosecutors criticized as too lenient.

Sheinbein, 19, pleaded guilty last month to strangling, stabbing and bludgeoning to death acquaintance Alfredo Tello Jr. in September 1997. The charred and dismembered corpse was found near the Sheinbein home in the Aspen Hill section of Wheaton.

His sentencing yesterday ended a tortuous two-year legal process that led to recriminations between Maryland and Israeli authorities and strained ties between the United States and Israel.

As a silent and impassive Sheinbein stood and listened, apparently able to understand Hebrew, Judge Uri Goren read a detailed account of the crime, noting "the cruelty, wickedness and malice" not only of the murder, but "the shocking acts of desecration to the deceased's body."

Such acts, the judge said, "show us to what depths the defendant sank and how inhuman he became at the time."

Goren, who headed a three-judge panel, said Sheinbein deserved a "severe and deterring punishment." But he argued that the 24-year term agreed to in a plea bargain was "significant and appropriate," and "in complete accord with the customary and accepted level of punishment in courts regarding minors." He also urged that Sheinbein get psychiatric treatment.

The court could have imposed a longer or shorter sentence than the one agreed to by the defense and prosecution.

Yesterday, the Montgomery County state's attorney, Douglas F. Gansler, criticized the Israeli judge for failing to increase the sentence to life imprisonment.

Rejecting the plea agreement "would have been unusual, but this is a very unusual case," Gansler said.

"It's an American crime, and it deserves American justice," he said. "We are very unhappy and disappointed with this final turn of events."

Sheinbein has been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in Montgomery County, and Gansler vowed to use that indictment to make Sheinbein a prisoner in Israel for the rest of his life. If he ever travels to the United States, Europe, or "any country where Interpol can reach him," Gansler said, Montgomery County will attempt to extradite him.

`He remains a danger'

"He remains a danger to himself and any community in which he lives," the prosecutor said.

Sheinbein fled to Israel from his Montgomery County home with his father's help a few days after the murder. Because his father, Sol, was born in pre-state Palestine, Israel's highest court ruled that the teen-ager was entitled to claim Israeli citizenship. Under the Israeli law that existed at the time, he could not be extradited to Maryland, but could face trial in Israel.

The decision drew protests from various U.S. officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, and some U.S. congressmen discussed an aid cutoff. The Israeli court acknowledged yesterday that Sheinbein's only reason for coming to Israel was to escape justice.

Aaron Needle, an accomplice, committed suicide in a Montgomery County jail on the eve of his trial.

Stunned by deal

Frustrated in their effort to have Sheinbein returned to the United States, Maryland prosecutors were stunned by the deal between the defense and prosecution that was reached before the trial began. It makes Sheinbein eligible for parole in 14 years and eligible for temporary furloughs from prison in as few as four years.

Had he been tried and convicted in Maryland, Sheinbein could have drawn life imprisonment.

Some of the U.S. criticism reverberated through the courtroom yesterday after a pale Sheinbein was led in by two guards, who sat on either side of him. He wore a navy blue polo shirt with two white vertical stripes and close-cropped hair that accentuated his youthfulness.

One reporter shouted: "Sheinbein -- It's a pretty soft sentence compared to the United States." The defendant ignored him.

`It's unfair'

His parents entered the court from the back. Approached by a reporter, Sheinbein's mother, Victoria, said, "It's unfair. It couldn't have happened to a better kid."The couple sat looking anxious and uncomfortable as journalists with microphones and cameras hovered around them.

A reporter overheard Victoria Sheinbein tell her husband to hold his head up. Both remained silent when asked if Samuel Sheinbein had expressed any remorse.

In fact he had, according to his lead attorney, David Libai. During a hearing early this month, Libai said Sheinbein believed he deserved to be punished.

Motive a mystery

But what prompted the gruesome crime remains a mystery. Libai told the court Oct. 11 that the young man had blocked the events of Sept. 16, 1997, the day of the killing, out of his mind. Asked yesterday if he knew what had driven Sheinbein to commit the killing, Libai said his client had never spoken about this publicly. For him to divulge it would betray Sheinbein's confidence, Libai said.

Sol Sheinbein told a Montgomery County grand jury that Samuel had given a partial account of the crime to his brother in a telephone conversation in which he claimed the victim had threatened him with a sawed-off shotgun. Maryland authorities do not accept that version and instead have called the crime a "thrill" killing.

Libai and the prosecutor, Hadassah Naor, said the sentence handed down yesterday was harsh by Israeli standards.

"The defendant received one of the most harsh sentences ever imposed on a minor convicted of murder in Israel," Libai said.

Sun staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this article.

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