Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Christopher H. Smith
Chairman - Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe


“Justice in the International Extradition System:

The Case of George Wright and Beyond”

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Rep. Chris Smith, Chairman

July 11, 2012

Good afternoon and welcome to everyone here for our hearing on "Justice in the international extradition system: the case of George Wright and beyond."

In September 2011, hopes were raised high when the FBI announced that George Wright, a fugitive for over 41 years, had been located in Portugal and taken into custody pursuant to provisional arrest request from the United States. These were hopes for accountability, justice, and, for the family of the man he murdered in Wall Township in 1962, for closure.

In 1963, George Wright was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison in connection with a gas station robbery during which Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient, was shot to death. He was subsequently sentenced to 15 to 30 years but escaped from prison in 1970. In 1972, he and four other men hijacked a Detroit-to-Miami flight – they flew the plane to Algeria, where Algerian authorities allowed them to disappear.

In 1976, four of the hijackers were located and arrested in France. They argued that they would not be able to get a fair trial in the United States because of racism in the American legal system. France invoked the "political offense exception" to ___ and refused to extradite them to the United States, but tried them in France instead. Following conviction, two of the hijackers spent a mere three years in prison and two others spent 2 1/2 years. George Wright was not one of those caught. For 41 years, George Wright’s whereabouts were unknown, and he built a life for himself that included a wife and children – a life that he denied to Walter Patterson.

When George Wright was located in Portugal last year, the Patterson family naturally thought that, as a prison escapee sought also for hijacking, he would be returned to the United States to finish serving the sentence he received for the murder of Walter Patterson. But shockingly, a Portuguese court rejected the United States‘ extradition request last November and efforts to reverse that decision were exhausted without success earlier this year. The Patterson family, so deeply wounded by the murder of Walter Patterson and then shocked by the escape of a person sentenced in that crime was injured yet again by Portugal's refusal to extradite George Wright.

Today's hearing will examine what happened in this case, what can be done about it, and the broader questions it raises about the international extradition system.

I welcome here Ann Patterson, Walter Patterson's daughter, who will put human face on what some might otherwise appear to be abstract legal issues and remind us what is really at stake when the extradition process fails. We will also hear from R.J. Gallagher, a retired FBI Special Agent who worked on the George Wright case. And finally, we will hear from Jonathan Winer, Senior Director, APCO Worldwide, Washington, DC, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement – widely respected for the skill and energy with which, during his tenure in the State Department, he built up the Department’s own capacities in international law enforcement. I urge you all to read Mr. Winer’s outstanding testimony, available on the back table – most of all I urge the Departments of Justice and State to study his ten recommendations.

On George Wright, Mr. Winer cogently explains: the utter indefensibility of the Portuguese court’s decision not to extradite; why Portugal can still do the right thing by revoking his citizenship, which he secured through immigration fraud; how the U.S. can still pursue Wright through INTERPOL and other means, including by various means of rendition or terrorist economic sanctions – and to do so more vigorously than it appears to be doing.

I particularly want to discuss point number nine, how “Congress could strengthen the Executive Branch’s ability to analyze and apply these tools in cases of failed extraditions.” He proposes that this “could be facilitated through a Congressional mandate for an annual report on extraditions to Congress covering such issues as total extraditions by country, number of extraditions refused, reasons for refusal of extraditions, and steps taken by the U.S. in response to a refused extradition…”

Many thanks to all of you for being here today – above all to the Patterson family. This hearing can only be painful for them, but we honor their willingness to speak out about how this injustice has affected their family – they represent not only themselves but the families of countless other crime victims, left in the lurch and prevented from achieving closure on the death of a loved one by injustices in the extradition system.

I would just share with you two more things before we begin.

• We invited the Department of Justice to participate in this hearing, but were unfortunately unable to coordinate the scheduling of this event with their availability. I look forward to covering this issue with them at a future hearing.

• We also invited the Portuguese ambassador to participate, but he had a scheduling conflict as well, and I will be meeting with him personally in my office.