American fugitive George Wright was freed by a Portuguese court after it refused a U.S. request to extradite the convicted murderer to complete his 15- to 30-year sentence for the shooting death of a gas station employee during a robbery the day after Thanksgiving in 1962.
Wright, now 68, had been under house arrest since being picked up in September outside his home near Lisbon in September as he headed to a neighborhood cafe.
Wright escaped from a New Jersey prison with three other inmates in 1970 after serving seven years. He hijacked a U.S. airliner to Algeria two years later and had been on the run since.
"I am very pleased and I want to thank the Portuguese courts for having made the right decision," Wright was quoted by the BBC as saying. He said he had a "clear conscience" because accomplices fired the shots that killed the gas station owner, not him.
Wright did admit hijacking the plane, saying that, at the time, he was a member of the Black Liberation Army fighting "to support the hopes of black people." But he told reporters in his lawyer's office, with his Portuguese wife and two grown children, that he was a changed man.
His lawyer said the three-judge panel refused to hand over Wright to the U.S. because he is a Portuguese citizen and the statute of limitations for the murder had run out. He said he expected the U.S. to appeal the ruling.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told the Associated Press that 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."
-- A Times staff writer
Photo: George Wright sits between his lawyers Nov. 17 after a Portuguese court freed him from house arrest and denied an extradition request from the U.S. Credit: Pedro Pina / AFP/Getty Images