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U.S. orders release of American wanted in Tonga for murder

Dean Jay Fletcher Fletcher was arrested in Pago Pago in early Sept. 2016 for illegally entering the territory without authority. [SN file photo]

Following a decision by the U.S. Secretary of State, the Honolulu federal court has born ordered to release “immediately” from US custody, an American citizen wanted in Tonga  for the alleged murder of his wife.

As previously reported by Samoa News, Dean Jay Fletcher fled to American Samoa in his yacht as Tonga police was pursing him. However, Fletcher was arrested in Pago Pago in September of last year for illegally entering the territory without authority. From there, the local charge was dismissed as Fletcher was arrested and taken to Hawaii on Nov. 22 by federal agents, based on a federal warrant.

Fletcher’s case made international news, as the Government of Tonga sought to extradite him back to the island kingdom for the alleged murder of his American wife onboard the couple’s boat — and the  whereabouts of the boat remains unclear after Fletcher was taken to Honolulu.

Tonga sought extradition based on a treaty between the two countries. In January this year, the Honolulu federal court committed the defendant to the Secretary of State to make the final determination on his extradition to Tonga where he is charged with murder with intent, murder by recklessness, manslaughter, and grievous bodily harm.

Under federal law, the Secretary of State makes the final determination on extradition.

Court documents show that since the Honolulu federal court’s decision, Fletcher has sought to be released from custody. The US Justice Department represented the federal government in this case.

An Oct. 31, 2017 letter — from U.S. State Department’s Tom Heinemann, assistant legal adviser for Law Enforcement and Intelligence to USDOJ’s Office of International Affairs — shows that the Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson had exercised discretion afford to him pursuant to federal law “and denied Tonga’s request for Fletcher’s extradition.”

“In exercising his discretion, the Secretary considers...any materials submitted by a fugitive following” a court decision, according to the letter made public in court records for Fletcher's case.

“These materials often address humanitarian issues that fall outside the court’s limited role, but are appropriate for the Secretary’s consideration,” Heinemann explained.

“In this case, if convicted of the most serious charge, Fletcher would have faced a mandatory penalty of death or life imprisonment under Tongan law,” he said, and noted that Fletcher was provided with free legal representation during his U.S. extradition proceedings due to his lack of funds.

The State Department appears concerned that if extradited back to Tonga, Fletcher may not have sufficient legal representation, nor get a fair trial.

According to the letter, the State Department determined, among other things, that Tonga does not have a federal public defender system, and neither NGOs nor other private funded sources reliably provide legal representation of indigent defendants.

In light of these circumstances, the State Department engaged in extensive discussion with the Tonga government in an attempt to address relevant concerns if he were extradited back to Tonga, according to Heinemann’s letter.

“Although the United States does not, as a rule, seek to impose our constitutional framework on legal systems of countries requesting extradition, considering the unique facts of this case and all relevant factors, including the Department’s inability to reach an agreement with Tonga with respect to certain relevant assurances, the Secretary determined that Fletcher could not be guarantee a fair trial in Tonga,” Heinemann wrote.

He also said that it was on Oct. 31, 2017 that the State Department notified the Government of Tonga that “we denied its request for Fletcher’s extradition.” He asked USDOJ to notify the Honolulu federal court of the decision so that Fletcher would be released from U.S. custody.

USDOJ quickly moved with a motion filed with US Magistrate Judge, Kenneth J. Mansfield in Honolulu to dismiss the case, saying that the Secretary of State has declined to order Fletcher’s surrender to the Tonga government. USDOJ also requested that the court vacate its order of Fletcher’s detention and “order Fletcher discharged from custody.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 1, a hearing was held at the Honolulu federal court on the government motion. And durning the hearing, Mansfield granted the motion and ordered Fletcher to be released immediately, according to court records.

Samoa News wasn’t able to get immediate confirm if Fletcher has been released already or in the process of being released from federal custody. It’s also not clear as to Tonga government’s reaction to the Secretary of State’s decision to deny Fletcher’s extradition.