State Bound by Sentence Cap in Extradition Agreement, Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A man who was extradited from Venezuela to the United States, convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life, is entitled to resentencing because Venezuela clearly expressed its understanding that the man would not be sentenced to more than 30 years when it extradited him, the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court reversed Judge Dana W. Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, and remanded to the district court to enter habeas relief.
Cristobal Rodriguez Benitez, a Mexican citizen, was extradited in 1998 from Venezuela to the United States where he was convicted and sentenced in San Diego Superior Court for the murder of a man who had an altercation with his brother.
Benitez argued in state and federal courts that his sentence cannot exceed 30 years because that was the agreement between Venezuela and the United States when he was extradited.
Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, writing for the Ninth Circuit, agreed.
“The rights claimed by Benitez pursuant to the extradition treaty are clearly established federal law pursuant to treaty law, and the sentence issued by the California Superior Court contravenes these rights, providing a basis for reversal,” Nelson wrote. “Where the provisions of the extradition treaty so provide, the surrendering country may expressly condition extradition of the fugitive.”
The U.S.–Venezuela extradition treaty, entered into in 1922, provides:
“[T]he contracting parties reserve the right to decline to grant extradition for crimes punishable by death and life imprisonment. Nevertheless, the Executive Authority of each of the Contracting Parties shall have the power to grant extradition for such crimes upon the receipt of satisfactory assurances that in case of conviction the death penalty or imprisonment for life will not be inflicted.”
The Supreme Court of Venezuela approved the extradition of Benitez in 1998, but stated that, if convicted by a U.S. court, the court, “shall not . . . impose a penalty involving [the] death penalty or life imprisonment or punishment depriving his freedom for more than thirty years.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela informed the U.S. that the extradition was “conditioned” upon the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s limitations.
Nelson said she saw no merit in the position taken by the state courts that they had “[no] power to fashion an alternative remedy, other than the sentence that is mandated by California law.”
Noting that under Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution, “[A]ll treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding,.” Nelson said:
“The treaty is federal law, and therefore California sentencing regimes must yield to the extent there are any inconsistencies with the California Sentencing rules.”
Nelson noted that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Benitez’ petition may only be granted if the Superior Court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” or “resulted in a decision that was based on and unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”
Nelson found that “[t]he unambiguous language of the treaty itself is indisputably clearly established federal law,.” and held that the superior court’s interpretation of the treaty was an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”
The case is Benitez v. Garcia, 04-56231
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