LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese court has denied a U.S. request for the extradition of captured American fugitive who spent 41 years on the run in a journey that took him across three continents, and included the brazen 1972 hijacking of a jet from America to Algeria.
George Wright, 68, who was released from house arrest, told reporters Thursday he was “very happy, morally and spiritually,” with the decision. He claimed his extradition to serve the rest of a sentence for a fatal New Jersey gas station robbery in 1962 was not justified because accomplices fired the shots that killed the owner.
Wright also admitted the plane hijacking and said he committed it as a militant member of the Black Liberation Army “to fight for black rights...to support the hopes of black people” — but is now a changed man.
“I’m not the person I was then,” said a relaxed Wright, occasionally smiling, at a news conference in his lawyer’s office attended by his Portuguese wife and their two grown children.
American authorities were seeking his return to serve the rest of his 15- to 30-year jail sentence. He was captured in Portugal in September after a fingerprint provided by U.S. authorities was matched to his in a national database the country maintains for all citizens and legal residents.
Wright’s lawyer, Manuel Luis Ferreira, told The Associated Press that the judge accepted his arguments that Wright is now Portuguese and that the statute of limitations on the killing had expired. He expects American authorities will appeal the decision, but the judge immediately released Wright from house arrest.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said American officials are “extremely disappointed” with the outcome, calling Wright “a convicted murderer guilty of an extremely serious crime which falls squarely within the terms of our bilateral extradition treaty with Portugal.”
Sweeney did not say whether an appeal will be filed, but said American authorities “expect Portugal to abide by its treaty obligations in this case. 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.”
Details of the judge’s decision were not available because Portuguese court proceedings for extraditions and many other cases are conducted in secrecy with no public access to the proceedings, filings or decisions.
Wright spent seven years in a U.S. prison for the New Jersey murder before escaping in 1970, and was on the run for 41 years until his arrest.
Authorities say Wright and three associates had already committed multiple armed robberies on Nov. 23, 1962, when Walter Patterson, a decorated World War II veteran and father of two, was shot dead in his gas station in Wall, New Jersey.
But Wright insisted Thursday that he never fired a shot in the holdup and pleaded “no defense” to the murder charge because his lawyer advised it avoid a life sentence or the death penalty.
“I didn’t kill anyone. I accompanied someone (who) committed a crime. They sentenced me on that particular aspect,” Wright said, speaking in fluent Portuguese. “I didn’t shoot. That was others.”