The U.S. Department of Justice will abandon the death penalty the case of Craig Lang, an Army veteran who fought with a far-right paramilitary unit in Ukraine and who was charged by authorities with the murder of a married couple in southwest Florida in April 2018.
The case is being closely monitored by U.S. officials and experts studying far-right extremism, and they are increasingly concerned about Americans traveling to Ukraine to train with far-right militants and gain combat experience.
During a status hearing held Monday at Fort Myers, Jesus Casas, the U.S. assistant attorney for the Florida Middle East, told the court that the government had decided to waive the death penalty in hopes of speeding up Lang’s extradition from Kiev, where he is now living under limited house arrest.
Ukraine is sensitive to the problem of capital punishment, which it abolished in 2000. Lang and his lawyers are participating in the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered Lang’s extradition suspended until he can reconsider his case. A representative of the ECHR did not say when the trial would be completed.
During Monday’s hearing, Casas said the U.S. government would continue to seek the death penalty against Lang’s accomplice Alex Zwifelhofer, one of the army’s veterans who also fought alongside far-right extremists in eastern Ukraine and has been in custody in the United States since 2019.
30-year-old and 23-year-old Zwifelhofer is accused of using a fake person to lure Seraphine “Danny” Lorenzo and Dinan Lorenzo to a night meeting in a business complex in the city of Esther, where the couple hoped to buy weapons from men and resell them to obtain profit. Instead, Lang and Zwifelhofer allegedly dramatically beat Lorenzo attack, left them to die and stole $ 3,000.
After the murder of the couple, the former soldiers planned to use the money to escape on a yacht to South America, where they wanted to “take part in the armed conflict against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and kill the “communists”, authorities say. The escape, however, did not go according to plan, and Zwifelhofer was later captured in his home state of Wisconsin and transferred to Florida, where he is awaiting trial scheduled for December. Lang managed to return to Ukraine, but was eventually detained by the Ukrainian authorities in August 2019, after returning from a short trip to Moldova. Border guards stopped him when they saw that an Interpol warrant had been issued for his arrest.
In a text message, Lang’s chief lawyer in Ukraine, Dmitry Morkhun, declined to comment on the new developments on Monday.
Lorenzo’s relative told BuzzFeed News on Monday that they were happy with the developments. In April, a relative who asked not to be named because of concerns about their safety said he did not want the death penalty for Lang; they just want him back in Florida for trial. “We just want him to pay,” the relative said.
Bjorn Brunwand, Lang’s lawyer appointed by a U.S. court, told Judge Gray Polster Chappel that he “inquired” about Lang’s possible extradition, but it is still unknown when and when Lang will be detained in the United States.
Given the uncertainty over Lang’s status, Casas told Judge Chapel that the government was handling the Zwifelhofer case in a different direction.
Government lawyers Lang and Zwifelhofer agreed that the pandemic had slowed their progress in gathering the things needed to prepare for the trial. Zwifelhofer’s lawyer, D. Todd Doss, said he needed more time to travel, meet with witnesses and collect documents to defend his client.
Lang and Zwifelhofer first met in Ukraine, where in 2016 they joined the far-right extremist group Right Sector. Famous for his neo-Nazi membership and alleged human rights violations, it grew out of an alliance of right-wing militants created during the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014. The right-wing sector later transformed itself as a volunteer battalion after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine.
Other Americans who fought in Ukraine told BuzzFeed News in an interview that Lang and Zwifelhofer became increasingly radical in their far-right views and behavior during their stay in the country.
The two people left Ukraine in 2017 after fighting eased and then tried their luck by joining forces in South Sudan. They never made it, but were instead detained and deported back to the US, where authorities claimed they would eventually regroup and plan their attack on Lorenzo to fund more foreign combat adventures.
Since then, Lang has been either held in a temporary detention center or under some form of house arrest in Ukraine. He currently lives in Kiev with his fiancé and their toddler and has to wear an ankle monitor. In February, at a court hearing attended by BuzzFeed News, he said he teaches Ukrainian to Ukrainians online to support a family.
At the same court hearing, Lang said the U.S. government also wanted to bring him to justice for alleged war crimes committed on the battlefields of Ukraine.
“Any separatist or Russian soldier I have killed will be charged with murder,” he told a Ukrainian court. “Understand that any soldier I could capture would be charged with kidnapping.”