LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese court on Thursday denied a U.S. request for the extradition of captured American fugitive George Wright, who spent 41 years on the run in a journey that took him across three continents.
The decision was criticized by the U.S., which wants Wright returned to serve the rest of his 15- to 30-year jail sentence for a 1962 killing in New Jersey.
Wright 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 declined to provide further details, saying he would hold a news conference later.
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 stopped short of declaring whether American authorities will appeal, but said they "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."
A Portuguese court official confirmed the extradition request was refused, but provided no details. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to discuss the case.
Portuguese court proceedings for extraditions and many other type of 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.
Patterson's daughter, Ann, said in an email she hopes U.S. officials will appeal the case and insisted that the extradition attempt "has not all been done for nothing."
"The entire world now knows what this man did," she said.
Wright was captured in the seaside village where he has lived since 1993 less than an hour's drive from Lisbon, and was jailed for about two weeks. But a judge released him about a month ago under house arrest.
Ferreira previously told The AP he would argue Wright is now a Portuguese citizen and should be allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence in Portugal, where his wife and two grown children live. Sweeney has repeatedly declined to discuss the legal arguments for extradition presented by the U.S.
Wright got Portuguese citizenship through his 1991 marriage to a Portuguese woman and after the tiny West African nation Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, gave him the new name of "Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos" complete with fake names for parents and made him a citizen.
The identity from Guinea-Bissau was granted after the country gave Wright political asylum in the 1980s, and that was accepted by Portugal when it granted him citizenship, according to his lawyer.
Wright broke out of Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey, on Aug. 19, 1970.
He made his way to Detroit and became a militant in the Black Liberation Army. In 1972, Wright dressed as a priest and used an alias to hijack a Delta flight from Detroit to Miami along four others, police say.
After releasing the plane's 86 passengers for $1 million, the hijackers forced the plane to fly to Boston, then to Algeria, where the hijackers sought asylum.
Algeria gave the money and plane back to the U.S., and Wright and his comrades went underground in Europe. The other four were captured and convicted of hijacking in Paris, but Wright managed to avoid the dragnet and slipped away.
He met his future wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, in Lisbon in 1978. The couple moved in the early 1980s to Guinea-Bissau where Wright lived openly using his real name and socialized with U.S. diplomats and embassy personnel who told The AP they were unaware of his past.
His wife also did translation work for years for the U.S. Embassy in Bissau. They lived there until they moved back to Portugal in 1993 to a whitewashed house with terra-cotta roof tiles in the tiny town of Almocageme, 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Lisbon and close to broad Atlantic beaches.
Fluent in Portuguese, Wright worked a series of jobs in Portugal as decorative painter, nightclub bouncer and barbecue chicken restaurant manager.
Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Spain, and Geoff Mulhivill in Haddonfield, New Jersey contributed to this report.
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