2021-05-11 01:56:20 Death Penalty Not Sought In Craig Lang Case: Feds

Death Penalty Not Sought In Craig Lang Case: Feds

The US Department of Justice has agreed to drop the death penalty in the case of Craig Lang, an Army veteran who served in a far-right paramilitary unit in Ukraine and has been charged in the April 2018 killing of a married couple in southwestern Florida.

The case is being closely monitored by US officials and experts studying far-right extremism, who are increasingly concerned about Americans traveling to Ukraine to train with far-right militant groups and gain combat experience.

During a status hearing held via Zoom in Fort Myers on Monday, Jesus Casas, assistant US attorney for the Middle District of Florida, informed the court that the government has decided to waive capital punishment in order to expedite Lang’s extradition from Kyiv, where he is currently under house arrest.

Ukraine is sensitive to the issue of the death penalty, which was abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers have petitioned the European Court of Human Rights, which has ordered a stay of extradition until it can review his case. A spokesperson for the ECHR did not specify when the review would be completed.

During Monday’s hearing, Casas stated that the US government would continue to seek the death penalty for Lang’s coconspirator, Alex Zwiefelhofer, a fellow Army veteran who also fought alongside far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and has been in US custody since 2019.

Lang, 30, and Zwiefelhofer, 23, are accused of using a false persona to entice Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo to a late-night meeting at a business complex in Estero, where the couple hoped to buy firearms from the men and resell them for a profit. Instead, Lang and Zwiefelhofer are accused of gunning down the Lorenzos in a dramatic attack, abandoning them to die, and stealing $3,000.

After murdering the couple, the ex-soldiers planned to flee to South America by yacht, where they hoped to “participate in an armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and kill “communists,” according to authorities. The escape did not go as planned, and Zwiefelhofer was apprehended in his home state of Wisconsin and transferred to Florida, where he is awaiting trial in December. Lang was able to return to Ukraine, but he was detained by Ukrainian authorities in August 2019 after returning from a short trip to Moldova. Border guards detained him after discovering that an Interpol arrest warrant had been issued for him.

Dmytro Morhun, Lang’s lead lawyer in Ukraine, declined to comment on the new development Monday in a text message.

The Lorenzos’ relative told BuzzFeed News on Monday that they were pleased with the development. In April, a relative, who did not want to be identified for fear of jeopardizing their safety, stated that they do not want Lang to face the death penalty, but rather that he be returned to Florida to face trial. “We just want him to pay,” the relative explained.

Bjorn Brunvand, Lang’s US court-appointed lawyer, told Judge Sheri Polster Chappell that he had “made inquiries” about Lang’s possible extradition but that it was still unclear when, if ever, Lang would be in US custody.

Given the uncertainty surrounding Lang’s status, Casas informed Judge Chappell that the government is taking a different approach in Zwiefelhofer’s case.

The government’s attorneys, Lang and Zwiefelhofer, agreed that the pandemic had slowed their progress in gathering the evidence needed for trial. D. Todd Doss, Zwiefelhofer’s attorney, stated that he needed more time to travel to meet with witnesses and gather documents for his client’s defense.

Lang and Zwiefelhofer first met in Ukraine, where they became members of the far-right extremist group Right Sector in 2016. It arose from an alliance of right-wing militant groups formed during Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising in 2014, and is notorious for its neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights violations. After Russia annexed Crimea and sparked a war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, Right Sector rebranded itself as a volunteer fighting battalion.

Other Americans who fought in Ukraine told BuzzFeed News that Lang and Zwiefelhofer became more radical in their far-right views and behavior during their time there.

After the fighting in Ukraine subsided in 2017, the two men attempted to join forces in South Sudan. They never made it and were arrested and deported back to the United States, where authorities claimed they would eventually regroup and plan their attack on the Lorenzos in order to fund more foreign fighting adventures.

Lang has been held in a detention facility or under house arrest in Ukraine since then. He is currently living in Kyiv with his fiancée and their toddler, and he is required to wear an ankle monitor. In a court hearing attended by BuzzFeed News in February, he stated that he teaches English to Ukrainians online in order to support his family.

During the same court hearing, Lang claimed that the US government wanted to prosecute him for alleged war crimes committed on Ukrainian battlefields.

“Any separatist or Russian soldier I killed would be charged with murder,” he told a Ukrainian court. “Please understand that any soldier I may have captured would be charged with kidnapping.”

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Death Penalty Not Sought In Craig Lang Case: Feds