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Court rules against extradition for U.S. fugitive in Portugal

From Laura Dolan, CNN
updated 8:04 PM EST, Thu November 17, 2011
US fugitive George Wright smiles as he speaks to journalists at the office of his lawyer in Lisbon on November 17.
US fugitive George Wright smiles as he speaks to journalists at the office of his lawyer in Lisbon on November 17.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. expresses disappointment with the decision
  • A three-judge panel says George Wright should not be extradited
  • Wright's house arrest was also lifted, his attorney says
  • Wright is accused of hijacking a plane in 1972 in Miami

(CNN) -- A Portuguese appeals court has ruled against extraditing fugitive American hijacking suspect George Wright to the United States, his attorney said Thursday.

"I am very, very happy," said Manuel Luis Ferreira, attorney for Wright, 68, who was found in Portugal in September after more than 40 years in hiding.

Wright said he was grateful to the Portuguese justice system.

"They made the right decision and this is correct," he told CNN affiliate RTP Portugal.

An undated mugshot of Wright.
An undated mugshot of Wright.

Wright's house arrest was also lifted, and he is free to move around with no restrictions, Ferreira said.

A three-judge appeals court in Lisbon agreed with all Wright's arguments to reject the U.S. bid for extradition, including the fact he is now a Portuguese citizen and is in declining health. They also agreed the statute of limitations on the case has expired, according to Portuguese state-run news agency LUSA.

The United States can appeal to Portugal's Supreme Court, Ferreira said. He said he could not release the court's ruling as it is secret.

The U.S. State Department said it was "extremely disappointed" in the ruling.

"George Wright is a convicted murderer guilty of an extremely serious crime which falls squarely within the terms of our bilateral extradition treaty with Portugal," the department said in a statement. "He is a fugitive from justice. We expect Portugal to abide by its treaty obligations in this case. In conjunction with the Department of Justice, we will review the court's decision and consult with Portuguese authorities to determine a path forward that results in Mr. Wright's return to the United States."

Wright escaped from prison in 1970 while serving a 15- to 30-year sentence for murder after he and another man shot and killed a World War II veteran in a 1962 gas station robbery in Farmingdale, New Jersey.

On July 31, 1972, Wright and four other members of the Black Liberation Army went to the Detroit airport and boarded Delta Flight 841 for Miami. Wright was dressed as a priest and carrying a hollowed-out Bible.

The group then allegedly hijacked the plane. Once it landed in Miami, they allegedly demanded that FBI agents dressed only in bathing suits deliver $1 million in ransom to the plane -- a way of making sure they were not armed. The FBI followed instructions, and the scantily clad agents delivered the money.

After allowing the 88 passengers off, the hijackers kept the flight crew on board and ordered the plane to fly to Boston. When it arrived, an extra navigator -- dressed in swim trunks and a shirt -- was brought on board, the DC-8 was refueled, and it flew to Algiers, Algeria.

The Algerian government seized the ransom money and returned it to the United States, but Wright and his associates vanished. Some were arrested in Paris in 1976. It's not clear how he wound up in Portugal.

U.S. authorities were able to locate Wright near Lisbon by tracking his travel patterns, ending a manhunt spanning three continents.

When seeking Wright, authorities matched a fingerprint in a Portuguese national identification database with one that they had on file for Wright from his time in prison, according to two U.S. law enforcement officials. Then they set up a delicate surveillance operation to make sure they had the man who had eluded them for so long, the officials added.

Ferreira previously said his client was suffering from heart and blood pressure problems.

"He thinks that if he goes to the U.S. he will die," he told CNN earlier. "He was a member of the Black Panthers group, and he fears that he will be made to serve as an example for everyone if he goes, and that he will die in prison."

He said Wright was a married father of two adult sons who goes by the name Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos in Portugal.

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