The U.S. Department of Justice will waive the death penalty the case of Craig Lang, an Army veteran who fought with a far-right paramilitary unit in Ukraine and whom authorities have accused of killing a married couple in southwest Florida in April 2018.
The case is being closely watched by U.S. 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.
On Monday, during a state hearing held via Zoom in Fort Myers, Jesus Casas, assistant U.S. attorney for the Florida Middle District, told the court that the government has decided to waive the death penalty in hopes of speeding it up. Lang’s extradition from Kyiv, where he currently resides under limited house arrest.
Ukraine is sensitive to the issue of the death penalty, which it abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers have implicated the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered a stay at Lang’s extradition until to which he could re-examine his case. An ECHR spokesman did not say when the review would be completed.
Casas said during Monday’s hearing that the U.S. government was still seeking the death penalty against Lang’s conspirator, Alex Zwiefelhofer, a veteran Army colleague who also fought alongside the far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and who has been in U.S. custody since 2019.
Zwiefelhofer, 30 and 23, is accused of using a fake person to lure Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo and Deana Lorenzo to a night meeting at a business complex in the city of Estero, where the couple hoped to buy firearms from men and resell them for a profit. Instead, Lang and Zwiefelhofer allegedly killed the Lorenzos in a drama to attack, he let them die, and stole $ 3,000.
After killing the couple, the former soldiers planned to use the money to escape by yacht to South America, where they wanted to “participate in an armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and kill “communists,” they say. authority. The escape did not go according to plan, however, and Zwiefelhofer was later captured in his native Wisconsin state and transferred to Florida, where he awaits the trial set for December. Lang managed to make his return to Ukraine, but was eventually arrested by the Ukrainian authorities in August 2019, after returning from a short trip to Moldova. Border guards arrested him after seeing that an Interpol warrant had been issued for his arrest.
In a text message, Lang’s chief lawyer in Ukraine, Dmytro Morhun, declined to comment on the new development on Monday.
A relative of the Lorenzos told BuzzFeed News Monday that they were happy with the development. In April, the relative, who asked not to be nominated primarily for his safety, said they did not want the death penalty for Lang; they just want him to be back in Florida to face the process. “We just want you to pay,” the relative said.
Bjorn Brunvand, Lang’s attorney for U.S. courts, told Judge Sheri Polster Chappell he had “made inquiries” into Lang’s possible extradition, but said it was not yet known when Lang would be in custody.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Lang’s status, Casas told Judge Chappell that the government is pursuing the Zwiefelhofer case on a different track.
Government lawyers Lang and Zwiefelhofer agreed that the pandemic had slowed their progress in gathering the things needed to prepare for the trial. Zwiefelhofer’s lawyer, D. Todd Doss, said he needed more time to travel to meet witnesses and collect documents for his client’s defense.
Lang and Zwiefelhofer met for the first time in Ukraine, where in 2016 they joined the far-right right-wing extremist group. Noted for its sound neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights abuses, was born from an alliance of right-wing militant groups formed during Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising in 2014. The Right Sector was later restructured as a volunteer fighting battalion after Russia annexed Crimea and unleashed a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Other Americans who have fought in Ukraine he told BuzzFeed News in interviews Lang and Zwiefelhofer became increasingly radical in their views and extreme right-wing behavior during their time in the country.
The two men left Ukraine in 2017 after the fight subsided and then tried their luck by joining forces in South Sudan. They never realized it and instead were detained and deported back to the United States, where authorities said they would eventually reunite and plan their attack on the Lorenzos to fund more foreign fighting adventures.
Since then, Lang has been either in a detention facility or in a form of house arrest in Ukraine. She currently lives in Kiev with her boyfriend and child and has to wear a ankle monitor. He said in a court hearing attended by BuzzFeed News in February that he teaches English lessons to Ukrainians online to support his family.
At the same court hearing, Lang said the U.S. government also wanted to prosecute him for alleged war crimes committed on Ukraine’s battlefields.
“Every separatist soldier or Russian soldier I have killed would be a charge of murder,” he told a Ukrainian court. “I understand that any soldier I have been able to capture would be charged with kidnapping.”