LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese court on Thursday 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, told reporters 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."
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," said Patterson, who has repeatedly expressed disbelief at Wright's contention that he never opened fire.
Wright was captured in the seaside village near Lisbon where he has lived since 1993, and was jailed for about two weeks until a judge released under house arrest.
Ferreira previously told The AP he would argue Wright is now a Portuguese citizen and if forced to serve out the sentence should do so in Portugal because of his citizenship, but Thursday's decision was an even bigger victory because it set him free.
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 he insisted on being addressed with it at the news conference. It 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 and made his way to Detroit, where he joined the Black Liberation Army. Dressed as a priest, he hijacked a Delta flight to Miami with four others, using handguns they snuck on the plane.
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, settling in France. The others were captured and convicted of hijacking in Paris, but Wright avoided the dragnet.
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, Guinea-Bissau's capital. 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.
In Portugal, Wright worked a series of jobs in Portugal as decorative painter, nightclub bouncer and barbecue chicken restaurant manager.
He said he regrets his crimes, but insisted his "life has changed radically" since meeting his wife. He said he wanted to tell her and his children about his past before his arrest, but "had a weight on my shoulders and I didn't want to transfer it onto them."
As for worrying about being caught, Wright said he "thought about it, but I live day to day."
"I want to relax now," he said. "And spend time with my family and friends."
Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Spain, and Geoff Mulhivill in Haddonfield, New Jersey contributed to this report.