The U.S. Department of Justice will commute the death sentence in the case of Craig Lang, a military veteran who fought with a right-wing paramilitary unit in Ukraine and whose authorities were charged in April 2018 with the murder of a married couple in southwestern Florida.
U.S. officials and experts studying ultra-right-wing extremism are closely monitoring the case, increasingly concerned about Americans who travel to Ukraine to gain training and combat experience with right-wing militant groups.
During a status hearing through Zoom in Fort Myers on Monday, Florida Middle District Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesus Casas told the court that the government has decided to commute Lang’s death sentence in hopes of speeding up Lang’s extradition from Kiev, where he currently remains in limited house arrest.
Ukraine is sensitive to the issue of the death penalty, which it abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers have approached the European Court of Human Rights, which has ordered that his extradition be stayed until Lang’s case is reviewed. An ECHR spokesman did not say when the review would end.
Casas said during Monday’s hearing that the U.S. government would still seek the death penalty against Lang’s Coconspire, Alex Zuifelhofer, a fellow military veteran who fought with far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and who has been in U.S. custody since 2019.
Lang, 30, and Juifelhofer, 23, have been accused of using Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Diana Lorenzo to a night meeting at a business complex in the city of Estero using a false personality, where the couple hoped to buy firearms for men and a profit. For resale. Instead, Lang and Juifelhofer shot Lorenzo in a dramatic attack, leaving him to die and stealing $ 3,000.
After killing the couple, the ex-soldiers planned to use the money to flee to South America by yacht, where they wanted to “take part in the armed conflict against Venezuela in the Republic of Bolivia” and kill “communists”, authorities alleged. He did not escape as planned, and Juifelhofer was later captured in his home state of Wisconsin and transferred to Florida, where he is awaiting trial in December. Lang was able to make his way back to Ukraine, but was eventually detained by Ukrainian authorities in August 2019, after returning from a short visit to Moldova. Seeing that an Interpol warrant had been issued for his arrest, the border guards stopped him.
In a text message, Lang’s chief lawyer, Dimitro Marhun, declined to comment on the new developments on Monday.
A relative of Lorenzo told BuzzFeed News on Monday that they were satisfied with the development. In April, relatives, who asked not to be named because of concerns for their safety, said they did not want Lang’s death sentence; They just want to bring him back to Florida to face trial. “We just want to give him money,” the relative said.
U.S. court-appointed attorney for Lang, Bjorn Brunvand, told Judge Sherry Polster Chapel that he had “questioned” Lang’s possible extradition, but said it was unknown when or if Lang would remain in U.S. custody.
In light of the uncertainty about Lang’s condition, Cassus told Judge Chappell that the government was pursuing Juifelhofer’s case in a different way.
Government lawyers, Lang and Juifelhofer, agreed that the epidemic had slowed their progress in procuring the necessary items to prepare for the trial. Juifelhofer’s lawyer, D. Todd Dos, said he needed more time to travel to meet with witnesses and collect documents to defend his client.
Lang and Juifelhofer first met in Ukraine, where in 2016 they joined the right-wing extremist group Right Sector. Notorious for neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights abuses, it was formed from an alliance of right-wing militant groups formed during the 2014 Euromedan uprising in Ukraine. After Russia occupied Crimea, the right sector reorganized itself as a volunteer war battalion and created a spark. War in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Other Americans who fought in Ukraine told BuzzFeed News that Lang and Juifelhofer had become increasingly radicalized in their country in right-wing views and behavior.
The two men left Ukraine in 2017 after the war and then tried their luck to join the army in South Sudan. They never did so and were instead detained and sent back to the United States, where authorities complained that they would eventually reorganize and plan their attacks on Lorenzo to carry out more foreign war campaigns.
Since then, Lang has been either detained in a factory or under house arrest in Ukraine. She currently lives in Kiev with her fianc and their children and they must wear an ankle monitor. He told a court hearing in BuzzFeed News in February that he taught Ukrainians English lessons online to help his family.
At the same court hearing, Lang claimed that the US government also wanted to prosecute him for alleged war crimes committed on the battlefield in Ukraine.
“Any separatist or Russian soldier I have killed will be charged with murder,” he told a court in Ukraine. “Understand that any soldier I can capture will be charged with kidnapping.”