Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Federal prosecutors are considering the death penalty in the case of four Trinidadian nationals extradited to face federal charges in the District in the kidnapping and killing of a U.S. citizen.

The four men were brought to the U.S. last month in connection with the April 2005 abduction of Balram Maharaj, a U.S. citizen and military veteran who was visiting family in the country.

The abductors sought a $500,000 ransom, but Mr. Maharaj’s body was found mutilated in a remote part of Trinidad months after he disappeared, prosecutors said.

The U.S. attorney’s office has not filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, but defense attorney John Carney recently told the embassy for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago that his client, Wayne Pierre, faces capital punishment in the case.

In a letter filed in federal court in recent days, Mr. Carney told the embassy that the U.S. Department of Justice “has not waived its right to proceed with the case as a death penalty prosecution.”

“This charge is eligible for the death penalty if there is a prosecution,” Mr. Carney wrote to the embassy.

The case is being prosecuted in the District because Mr. Maharaj was a U.S. citizen. The U.S. Department of Justice in recent years brought three Rwandan nationals to face trial in the District in the killings of two American tourists in Uganda, though charges were dismissed last year.

In Mr. Pierre’s case, prosecutors say he was part of a group of a dozen abductors, some of them armed, who seized Mr. Maharaj while he was at a bar with friends.

The abductors demanded a ransom for his release, but his body was not found until January 2006 in a remote section of Trinidad, prosecutors said. The FBI’s Miami field office investigated the case.

In February, authorities announced that another defendant, Winston Gittens, had pleaded guilty and that prosecutors had agreed not to seek capital punishment.

“The horrible facts of the this case are a prime example of why the Department of Justice is so committed to investigating and prosecuting persons who seek to prey upon U.S. citizens and residents when they are abroad,” said Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District, speaking about Gittens’ plea earlier this year.

Four other defendants remain detained in Trinidad amid various appeals on whether they should be extradited.

The Justice Department will not seek the death penalty against those defendants, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. But it’s not clear whether the four others, including Mr. Pierre, who were brought to the U.S. last month will face capital punishment.

“There has been no public announcement with respect to the position of the Department of Justice on whether it will seek the death penalty,” said Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. “That decision is still pending.”

According to the indictment, Mr. Pierre helped plan the abduction. He also is charged with dismembering Mr. Maharaj’s body after he died, storing the remains in a blue plastic barrel and Styrofoam cooler before burying him in a remote section of Trinidad.

Prosecutors have had difficulty in recent capital punishment cases in the District. D.C. law bars the death penalty, but defendants can face capital punishment in federal crimes.

One year ago, six men faced death-penalty prosecutions, but in each case, the defendants avoided capital punishment. A jury ruled against the death penalty in the case of convicted gang enforcer Larry Gooch.

In a separate gang case, a judge ruled that prosecutors missed a key deadline to seek the death penalty against two accused of leading the Congress Park Crew.

In January, the Justice Department dropped charges against three men from Rwanda brought to the District to face capital murder charges in the 1999 killing and kidnapping of two American tourists in Uganda.

The move was prompted by a ruling from U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle, who suppressed the defendants’ confessions, citing evidence the men were tortured while imprisoned by Rwandan authorities.

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