NY court orders new sentence in 1968 air hijacking

A man sentenced to prison for 15 years for hijacking a plane from New York to Cuba four decades ago will be resentenced after a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a lower-court judge wrongly concluded he would not be eligible for parole.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the resentencing for 69-year-old Luis Armando Pena Soltren. Pena Soltren returned to the United States from Cuba in October 2009 to face air-piracy charges. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison without parole.

The appeals court said Pena Soltren is entitled to a sentence that includes the possibility of parole because parole existed in the federal sentencing structure when Pan American Flight 281 was hijacked on Nov. 24, 1968. The 2nd Circuit said the judge can take Pena Soltren's parole eligibility into account in determining a new sentence. Prisoners at the time were generally eligible for parole after serving about a third of their sentences.

Authorities said Pena Soltren put a knife to the throat of a flight attendant and a gun to her back before entering the cockpit. Prosecutors said Pena Soltren, a U.S. citizen, carried out the hijacking with at least two others who brought pistols and large knives aboard in a baby's diaper bag. The pilots were forced to divert the Puerto Rico-bound flight, which was carrying 103 passengers and crew, from Kennedy International Airport to Havana.

Parole has been abolished in the federal system, and inmates now must serve their entire sentence, except for a 15 percent reduction earned for good behavior. No new sentencing date was immediately set for Pena Soltren.

Pena Soltren's lawyer, James Neuman, declined to comment. He said prior to the first sentencing that his client only joined the hijacking so he could visit his father in a Cuban hospital.

Two others who participated in the hijacking pleaded guilty to charges in the 1970s. One served seven years in prison while the other served four years.

Jerika Richardson, a spokeswoman for prosecutors, said the government had no comment on the appeals ruling.