WASHINGTON – A fugitive murderer from New Jersey could be tried as a terrorist today because he helped hijack an airliner in 1972, a former FBI agent who worked on the case for 17 years said Wednesday.
R.J. Gallagher told Congress that George Wright, convicted in the murder of a New Jersey gas station owner a half-century ago, should not be allowed to continue living a normal life in Portugal — where he was tracked down after 40 years at large and allowed to remain after courts rejected extradition.
An ex-State Department official, Jonathan Winer, even suggested that Wright could be nabbed by the U.S. government by means of an "extraordinary rendition," a method used by the Bush administration to capture terrorists — or by private bounty hunters who would be paid by the U.S. government.
But he warned that snatching Wright would result in "chilling the bilateral relationship" with Portugal for years.
The hearing was conducted by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent agency of the federal government. Smith used the case of Wright, who committed the gas station murder in the congressman's district, to spotlight problems with extradition.
Smith said he's not giving up on trying to get Wright, a prison escape, to serve the rest of his term for murder and to stand trial on the hijacking.
He said the decision against extradition came from "what appears to be a rogue court" and added, without further explanation, that "there will be repercussions from this side" to Portugal.
"This is not over," he said.
Wright's Portuguese lawyer, Manuel Luis Ferreira, said he and his client followed the proceedings live on the Internet in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital.
"We were expecting this," Ferreira said of the proceedings which he characterized as unfairly critical of Portugal and his client.
He said it was "deeply regrettable" that the witnesses were unfamiliar with Portuguese judicial procedures and the separation of powers between the legal system and the government under the Portuguese Constitution.
He said a total of six judges had issued rulings at different stages of Wright's court case in Portugal, not just one as the witnesses claimed.
He noted that Guinea-Bissau, not Portugal, granted Wright citizenship under a new identity. Wright later got Portuguese nationality through his marriage to a Portuguese woman.
Ferreira said the hearing "showed no interest in understanding what (Wright) did and why at the time of the events." Ferreira has previously argued that Wright is a reformed person who now regrets his past misdeeds which, Ferreira says, were carried out when he was young and at a time of social and political upheaval in the United States.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving 1962, Wright and two others robbed and beat gas station owner Walter Patterson in Wall Township, N.J. The victim, a World War II veteran, died several days later.
Wright pleaded no defense, a plea that allowed him to avoid a life term and be sentenced to 15 to 30 years. Seven years and seven months later, Wright escaped from a state prison. And in July 1972, Wright — dressed as a priest — pulled a gun from a hollowed-out Bible and with four others hijacked a Detroit-to-Miami flight that ended up in Algeria. At one point, he threatened to toss bodies from the plane but no one was killed.
"If one looks at the elements of the crime Wright committed (the hijacking), this same act committed today would be potentially charged as an act of terrorism," Gallagher, the ex-FBI agent said. He added that the U.S.-Portugal Extradition Treaty states that Portuguese citizens can be extradited for terrorism.
Gallagher said that the U.S. government made the extradition request solely on the murder case.
Portuguese police captured the 68-year-old Wright near Lisbon in September 2011. Although living under an assumed name, he was tracked down by Portuguese police from a comparison of fingerprints.
A Lisbon judge in November refused the U.S. request for extradition, ruling the statute of limitations had expired. Portugal's Supreme Court twice rejected U.S. appeals, and the U.S. did not use its last chance of appeal to Portugal's constitutional court.
Portuguese courts also accepted that Wright, who lived in the country since 1993, is now a Portuguese citizen. He married a Portuguese woman in 1991.
Patterson's daughter, Ann, describing the murder as "an emotionally draining, open wound," testified it was "a disgrace that our justice system has failed in assuring a proper punishment for this crime. The whole case sets a terrible precedent for this country both here and worldwide:"
She said Wright and his accomplices not only shot Patterson but "beat my father beyond recognition," causing his death several days later. The robbery netted $70.
Winer, the former State Department official, said the Portuguese court's refusal to extradite Wright was "legally indefensible" under the Portuguese-U.S. Extradition Treaty and under principles of international law.
"The statute of limitations protects people from belated prosecutions — not fugitive escapees from prison after their convictions," he said.
Winner said Portuguese authorities can "still do the right thing" because Wright apparently entered the country through immigration fraud, using a false name and a false history about his citizenship and birth.
Associated Press writer Barry Hatton contributed to this report from Lisbon.