ROCKVILLE -- A Montgomery County teen-ager accused of a grisly 1997 murder will stand trial in Israel, not the United States, a reluctant Israeli Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Samuel Sheinbein had fought extradition, claiming Israeli citizenship through his father. Israeli law prohibits the extradition of its citizens charged with crimes abroad.
The high court said the 1978 law took precedence over an extradition treaty signed by Israel and the U.S. in 1962.
"One cannot surmise I believe this is the desired or correct solution," wrote Justice Theodor Orr in the 3-2 majority opinion.
Sheinbein showed no emotion as Chief Justice Aharon Barak read the decision. He left the courtroom accompanied by guards without saying anything to his parents seated nearby.
The 18-year-old will be held in jail until his Israeli indictment within the next five days, said Irit Kahn, a senior Justice Ministry official.
Sheinbein's lawyer has admitted in court that his client committed the crime.
The ruling was immediately criticized in Jerusalem and Washington and by the victim's distraught mother in Montgomery County, who urged people to write to their congressmen to demand the end of aid to Israel.
Eliette Ramos, mother of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr., called the ruling "ridiculous."
"This is the person who brutally murdered and dismembered my only child," said Ramos, fighting back tears. "He and his family are laughing at both Israel and the United States because they manipulated both countries. How can the United States government provide billions of dollars to Israel and they not support the U.S. treaty?"
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last year that he would cooperate in extradition efforts, said he was disappointed.
"We did want to see extradition," Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv. "We are a country of law. In a country of law, the law is interpreted by the Supreme Court."
The State Department and Attorney General Janet Reno also expressed disappointment.
"We will be consulting with the Israeli government on whether there are further possibilities for review of this decision," said James Foley, a State Department spokesman.
Reno said her department preferred that the case be tried here, "but if it has to be tried in another country, we want to make sure that the processes are in place that will permit it to happen, so that we see justice done regardless."
At a news conference, Montgomery County prosecutors vowed to work with their Israeli counterparts to convict Sheinbein.
"It's a great frustration not to be able to present the evidence we developed," said John McCarthy, the deputy state's attorney who helped Israel prepare the appeal and might assist in the trial.
There is little sympathy in Israel for Sheinbein. Rather, there appears to be a sense that he has taken advantage of the system.
A Jerusalem Post editorial denounced Sheinbein as the "proverbial uninvited and unwanted guest who is an acute embarrassment to the host, but who nobody knows precisely how to get rid of."
In his minority opinion, Barak warned that unless the law is changed, Israel could become a haven for criminals with dual citizenship.
Israeli officials hope the ruling will speed consideration by the parliament of a bill to amend the extradition law.
Sheinbein arrived in Israel two days after Tello's limbless, charred body was discovered Sept. 19, 1997, in the garage of a vacant home in the Aspen Hill section of Wheaton.
Neighbors told police that several days earlier, they saw Sheinbein and another teen-ager pushing a wheelbarrow containing something wrapped in a blue tarp on a path between the Sheinbein home and the vacant house.
An employee of a real estate company showing the house found the body, its limbs severed above the knees and elbows, its face burned beyond recognition. The state medical examiner ruled Tello was killed by blows to the head, strangulation and knife wounds to the neck and chest.
The other teen-ager, Aaron Needle, was arrested and held in the Montgomery County jail. He hanged himself in his cell last April, one day before his murder trial was to start.
Sheinbein's family initially cooperated with Maryland authorities and tried to return their son to the United States. But on the night the teen-ager was to board a flight back home, he took an overdose of pills in a Tel Aviv hotel and was hospitalized.
Sol Sheinbein, a patent lawyer, was born in Palestine in 1944, four years before Israel's founding. A law passed in 1952 gave citizenship to those living in Israel at the time. Israeli law also allows citizenship to pass from father to son.
Samuel Sheinbein had never before exercised that citizenship, and during five visits to the country entered on his U.S. passport.
Israel's Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein ruled in October 1997 that Sheinbein was not a citizen and could be forcibly returned to the United States.
Last year, the Jerusalem District Court ordered extradition, noting that while Sheinbein was an Israeli citizen, he had not maintained close ties to the country.
Sheinbein's lawyer and a former Israeli justice minister, David Libai, has said in court that his client will plead guilty to first-degree murder.
But Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler said that plea could be filed with conditions, such as diminished capacity, that would reduce the sentence.
Even a life sentence in Israel rarely translates into longer than 20 years, and it may be trimmed by one-third for good behavior.
Gansler said that, because of Sheinbein's age at the time of the crime, he would have asked for a sentence of life without parole.
Sheinbein, who requires a translator, will not have a jury trial in Israel.
Robbie Sabel, the Foreign Ministry's former legal adviser and now a private attorney, said the judge might decide to hear some testimony in the United States to save the government the expense of flying an estimated 50 prosecution witnesses to Israel.
The Israeli government has agreed to pay for a representative of Tello's family to be at the trial.
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews, special correspondent Joshua Brilliant and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/26/99