LISBON, Portugal (AP) — The lawyer for a captured American fugitive said his client wanted to serve the rest of his jail time in Portugal, but legal experts predicted Friday that U.S. prosecutors will “move heaven and earth” to get him back into the U.S. justice system.
Lawyer Manuel Luis Ferreira says George Wright, 68, deserves to serve the remainder of his 15- to 30-year New Jersey murder sentence in Portugal because he has lived in the country for decades, has a Portuguese wife and grown Portuguese children.
“If he has to serve, then he wants it to be here, which is his home,” Ferreira told Portugal’s TVI television.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined comment Friday on the defense counsel’s arguments due to the pending extradition request against Wright. American lawyers who are experts on extradition, however, said they expect an intense effort by U.S. officials to ensure Wright’s return after 41 years on the lam.
Justice Department lawyers “will move heaven and earth to get him back here, and I believe they will be successful. If they have to do it through diplomacy, they will do it through diplomacy,” said Philadelphia lawyer Norris Gelman.
Gelman represented Ira Einhorn, who was extradited to the U.S. from France in 2001 and convicted of murder after fleeing abroad in 1981.
Wright broke out of the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, on Aug. 19, 1970, after serving over 7 years of his sentence for killing a man in a 1962 gas station robbery. He was also part of a Black Liberation Army group that hijacked a U.S. plane to Algeria in 1972.
Wright was captured in a seaside village near Lisbon on Monday after authorities matched his fingerprint on a Portuguese identity card to one in the United States. Until his arrest, Wright spent decades living with his Portuguese wife and children in the hamlet near Lisbon, Portugal’s capital.
After an odyssey that spanned three continents, Wright is being held in Lisbon, pending extradition hearings. He has asked to be set free, a request that is still pending. If the U.S. wins the extradition request, Wright can appeal that decision to Portugal’s Supreme Court and the country’s Constitutional Court, a process that could last years.
Ferreira said Wright will oppose extradition on the grounds that he fears reprisals for his past membership in the militant U.S. group.
The U.S. has requested extradition based solely on Wright’s murder conviction, not any possible future charges from the plane hijacking or his New Jersey prison escape.
“He’s already been convicted on the homicide charge, for which we are seeking his extradition, and faces the remainder of that sentence,” Sweeney said.
Danielle Hunter, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, said there has been no talk so far of adding charges relating to Wright’s prison escape.
But Douglas McNabb, a Washington-based lawyer who has defended people in extradition cases, said he expects the U.S. to add some charges related to the hijacking to make an example of Wright.
“This taints the U.S.’s image that someone could be gone and not found as long as he was,” McNabb said.
Hijacking in the United States carries a possible penalty of life in prison, and Portugal does not allow people to be extradited if they will face more than the nation’s maximum sentence of 25 years.
Under Portuguese law, citizens can serve sentences handed down in a foreign country in Portugal. But Portuguese officials say there is doubt about the validity of Wright’s identification documents and whether he is a citizen like his wife and children.
A foreigner marrying a Portuguese is entitled to Portuguese nationality, but has to formally request it and it is not known whether Wright did. In addition, his Portuguese residency card was under an alias, Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos, and listed his home country as Guinea-Bissau.
Ferreira said his client had been living openly in Portugal and even had a Facebook page.
“He wasn’t running. He wasn’t hiding,” Ferreira told TVI.
The United States, meanwhile, confirmed that Wright’s Portuguese wife had worked as an occasional freelance translator for the U.S. Embassy in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau from 1984 to 1990. Wright himself did not work for the embassy, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.
In the 1980s, Wright lived openly under his real name with his wife in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, and even socialized with U.S. embassy officials there. A former U.S. ambassador told The Associated Press he knew Wright then but had no idea he was a fugitive.
Andre Cameron, an American friend of Wright’s for the past 20 years in Portugal, told the AP he was stunned by this week’s revelations about Wright’s hidden past.
He described Wright as a regular church-goer and said Wright’s sister, who lives in North Carolina, visited her brother about three times in Portugal, most recently several years ago. He declined to give the woman’s name or her location to spare her from media attention.
Geoff Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Matthew Lee in Washington and Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey contributed.
(This version CORRECTS year Einhorn fled to 1981.)
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.