The Sheinbein case and the Israeli-American extradition experience: a need for compromise.

Author:Abramovsky, Abraham

    The relationship between the United States and Israel is a complicated one and has historically been defined by major geopolitical issues such as the Cold War and the ongoing Middle East peace process. Thus, it can be considered something of a surprise that the most volatile political rift between the United States and Israel in 1997 concerned not settlements in the West Bank but a murder in Maryland.

    Initially, this murder did not seem to be destined to turn into an international incident. On September 19, 1997, the burned and dismembered body of Enrique Tello, Jr., was discovered by police in a suburban Maryland neighborhood near the home of Samuel Sheinbein.(1) According to area residents, Sheinbein and his friend Aaron Needle, both seventeen, had been seen pulling a wheeled cart the previous week on a path near the location where the body was found.(2) Local police sought Sheinbein and Needle for questioning in the murder.

    Rather than face questioning, Sheinbein fled the country.(3) Five days after the police first sought Sheinbein for questioning, he turned up in Tel Aviv; located by Israeli police acting on a tip they had received from his family.(4) Based on information received from U.S. authorities, Israeli police took Sheinbein into custody pending application for extradition from the United States.(5)

    This was the last event in the Sheinbein case which resembled an ordinary murder prosecution. Thereafter, events rapidly mushroomed. Under an Israeli law enacted in 1978, the Offenses Committed Abroad Act, Israel will not extradite suspects who were Israeli citizens at the time their alleged offense was committed.(6) Accordingly, Sheinbein, even though he was born in the United States and had never lived in Israel, claimed that he was an Israeli citizen.(7) He based his claim on the nationality of his father, Sol, who was born in territory within the British Mandate of Palestine, and emigrated to the United States in 1950.(8) Sheinbein thus claimed that under the Israel nationality law, which grants citizenship to any person with Israeli parents, he was an Israeli national and could not be extradited.(9)

    On September 29, after examining Sheinbein's claim, Israeli diplomats gave notice to the United States that Israel would refuse to extradite him to face trial in Maryland(10) pursuant to the Offenses Committed Abroad Act.(11) Instead, as has been the recent custom between the two countries,(12) they offered to try him in Israel on the Maryland murder charges.(13) In contrast with prior precedent, the Israeli government even agreed to bear the cost of the prosecution.(14) Rather than ameliorating the situation, however, this proposal set off a firestorm of political repercussions in the United States. Robert Dean, the Maryland prosecutor in charge of the Tello murder, almost immediately denounced the Israeli proposal as burdensome and unjust,(15) and expressed concern that Sheinbein might obtain more lenient treatment in an Israeli court than in a Maryland tribunal.(16) In addition, as Israeli officials struggled to find a means of returning Sheinbein to the United States, Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.) threatened to withhold almost $50 million in U.S. aid to Israel if Sheinbein was not extradited.(17) The Sheinbein case thus managed to do--what even the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations did not do -- threaten the long-standing friendly relationship between the United States and Israel.

    The political implications of the Sheinbein case, however, may not be as surprising as they initially seem -- because crime itself has taken on increasing geopolitical significance. In the past twenty years, drug trafficking and money laundering, along with other forms of criminal conduct, have become increasingly transnational.(18) In pursuit of international cooperation against these crimes, the United States has increasingly demanded that other nations cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of criminals -- even to the extent that certain nations view U.S. pressure as an attack on their sovereignty.(19)

    Thus, the United States has clashed with nations such as Mexico, Colombia, and Israel regarding their refusal to extradite their nationals.(20) The United States has also predicated economic aid to other nations, such as Nigeria, on cooperation in law enforcement.(21) Furthermore, other factors such as differing standards of due process and differences in substantive criminal law have increased the difficulty of obtaining extradition and have strained relations between the United States and foreign governments.

    Accordingly, this Article will examine the political ramifications of the extradition process and the need for compromise to prevent domestic politics from undermining the ends of law enforcement. This Article will also suggest possible measures to ease the complications that extradition poses to international law enforcement cooperation. Part II of this Article will examine the facts of the most recent and dramatic example of the politics of extradition as played out in the Sheinbein case. Part III will analyze other issues which have placed obstacles in the path of practical law enforcement and international relations, and the way that the United States has reacted to each issue. Special emphasis will be placed on U.S.-Israeli extradition problems. Finally, Part IV will discuss compromises which might be made by the United States and other nations such as Israel to ease the extradition process, particularly in cases involving a national of the asylum state, without sacrificing national sovereignty.


    The major event in Israeli-U.S. relations in 1997 began with a grisly murder in Maryland. On September 19, 1997, the Maryland state police located a black plastic bag containing the remains of a dismembered human body burned almost beyond recognition.(22) The body was later identified as that of Enrique Tello, Jr., a local teenager.(23)

    Police almost immediately suspected Samuel Sheinbein and Aaron Needle, both seventeen, of the murder. The evidence against them was plentiful: the body was found in a vacant house just around the corner from Sheinbein's home; a witness had seen teenagers matching Sheinbein and Needle's descriptions struggling to move a tarpaulin covered garden cart toward the vacant house; a trail of blood was located between Sheinbein's home and the house where the body was found; and a power saw was found, near the body, which matched an empty box discovered at Sheinbein's home.(24) Moreover, subsequent investigation of the Sheinbein garage revealed the remnants of a fire which appeared to have been set and extinguished, a box of commercial fire logs that matched those found around the body, a handsaw, several bloodstains, surgical gloves, and a box of garbage bags similar to those used to contain the victim's body.(25)

    On Friday, September 19, Sheinbein reportedly told his family that he was going to Ocean City, Maryland, for the weekend.(26) On Monday, however, he had not returned to his home. Instead, on September 21, Sheinbein fled to Israel.(27)

    On September 25, Sheinbein's parents notified the Maryland police of his whereabouts, and stated that they had negotiated the voluntary return of their son through their attorney.(28) Sheinbein's family further notified the police that he was scheduled to board a nonstop Tel Aviv-to-New York flight the following day. However, Sheinbein failed to emerge from this flight when it landed at Kennedy Airport in New York.(29)

    Following this, FBI agents informed Israeli authorities of the existence of a provisional warrant for Sheinbein's arrest in Maryland.(30) Working with Israeli authorities, FBI agents located Sheinbein at Yitzhak Rabin Hospital, where he had been hospitalized for an apparent drug overdose.(31) Shortly thereafter, Israeli police placed Sheinbein under arrest following a formal request for extradition from the United States embassy in Tel Aviv.(32)

    The problems of the Maryland authorities appeared to be over. Israel and the United States have a functioning extradition treaty,(33) and Israel had a long-standing history of cooperation with the United States in law enforcement matters.(34) Moreover, although Sheinbein was to be tried as an adult on first-degree murder charges in Maryland, he was not eligible for the death penalty due to his age.(35) This removed a potential obstacle to extradition, as Israel has a very limited death penalty statute, and does not extradite individuals who face capital punishment abroad.(36)

    Nevertheless, on September 29, 1997, Israeli authorities announced that Sheinbein would not be extradited to Maryland because he held Israeli citizenship.(37) Instead, Israel offered to prosecute Sheinbein for the Maryland homicide at Israeli expense.(38) From this point, the Sheinbein case rapidly transformed into an exercise in domestic and international politics.

    Israel, like many nations, refuses to extradite its nationals for prosecution in foreign countries.(39) However, the Israeli-U.S. extradition relationship is complicated by the terms of the extradition treaty between Israel and the United States. This treaty, concluded in 1962, requires each country to "deliver up persons found in its territory,"(40) and specifically prohibits the refusal of extradition on the grounds that a requested individual is "a national of the requested Party.(41) At the same time, the treaty also specifies that extradition will occur in accordance with domestic legislation.(42)

    The domestic laws governing extradition proceedings in Israel were changed after several celebrated cases led the Israeli government to question the policy of extraditing its own nationals. The first of these cases occurred in 1962, the same year that the United States-Israeli extradition treaty was concluded.(43) It involved Robert Soblen, a U.S. citizen convicted...

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