Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Court Rejects Mexican Man’s Sentence Challenge Based on Extradition Treaty
By a MetNews Staff Writer
In sentencing an extradited murder defendant, a U.S. district court is not required to honor a sentence limitation unilaterally imposed by a foreign extradition decree, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday.
Affirming a ruling by U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, of the Southern District of California, the court rejected a petition for a writ of habeas corpus brought by Mexican citizen Cristobal Rodriguez Benitez.
Yesterday’s decision replaces a prior decision in which the same Ninth Circuit panel, comprised of Senior Judges Jerome Farris and Dorothy W. Nelson, and Richard C. Tallman, concluded Benitez should have been granted relief.
In his habeas petition, Benitez contested the 15-year-to-life sentence he was given after being convicted of murdering a man in San Diego. The victim, shot and killed in 1997, had been involved in an altercation with Benitez’s brother.
After the shooting, Benitez fled to Venezuela. Pursuant to its extradition treaty with Venezuela, the United States asked the country to extradite Benitez to face murder charges in California.
With respect to crimes punishable by death and life imprisonment, the extradition treaty authorized Venezuela to extradite suspects to the U.S. “upon the receipt of satisfactory assurances” that neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment would be imposed in case of conviction.
The United States informed the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that, if convicted of first degree murder, Benitez would receive a prison sentence of 25 years to life. Venezuela’s Supreme Court approved Benitez’s extradition in August 1998, but stated that a U.S. court convicting Benitez “shall not” sentence him to death, life in prison, or to a term of incarceration exceeding 30 years.
After Benitez was extradited to the U.S., the San Diego County District Attorney filed an information alleging he committed murder and personally used a firearm.
Around the start of his trial in July 1999, the Venezuelan Embassy wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice saying that the sentence Benitez faced might violate both the extradition treaty and the sentence “conditions” set by Venezuela’s high court in approving the extradition request.
Benitez raised this issue at trial. In addition, after he had been convicted and was awaiting sentencing, the Department of State contacted the district attorney’s office advising it not to recommend a life sentence.
Nonetheless, he was ultimately sentenced to fifteen years to life with an enhancement for the personal use of a firearm.
Benitez requested habeas relief on the ground that his sentence violated the U.S.-Venezuela extradition treaty. Sabraw denied his petition, concluding he failed to show that his sentence violated clearly established federal law.
In its prior appellate opinion—first issued last May and subsequently modified twice—the Ninth Circuit said the state trial judge’s rejection of Benitez’s treaty argument had been an objectively unreasonable application of U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent. Under United States v. Rauscher, 119 U.S. 407 (1886), and Johnson v. Browne, 205 U.S. 309 (1907), the panel said, state courts were required to uphold a foreign nation’s extradition order invoking provisions of an extradition treaty with the U.S.
Reversing course yesterday in a per curiam opinion, however, the panel noted that Rauscher and Browne involved extradition agreements that had been negotiated.
The element of negotiation was absent in Benitez’s case, the judges said, explaining:
“Venezuela could have refused extradition of Benitez until the United States agreed to the sentencing limitation. Instead, Venezuela relinquished custody.”
The trial judge therefore reasonably declined to extend the U.S. Supreme Court holdings to Benitez’s case, the panel held.
The case is Benitez v. Garcia, 04-56231.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company