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Joran van der Sloot’s confession isn’t altruism — but it is closure

It’s not about coming clean, it’s not about altruism, and it’s not about rehabilitation.

Joran van der Sloot admitted in a federal court in Alabama on Wednesday that he bludgeoned Natalee Holloway to death on an Aruban beach nearly two decades ago, in 2005. Van der Sloot appeared before U.S. District Judge Anna Manasco to plead guilty to a 2010 indictment for extortion and wire fraud for his efforts to extract money from Holloway’s family in exchange for information about what happened to her body.

The plea provided some long-overdue closure to Holloway’s mother, Beth: “As far as I’m concerned it’s over,” she told reporters. “Joran van der Sloot is no longer the suspect in my daughter’s murder. He is the killer.”

Joran van der Sloot is no longer the suspect in my daughter’s murder. He is the killer.”

Beth Holloway

It’s some form of justice. But don’t be fooled: Van der Sloot is probably still gaming the system. His plea is demonstrably self-interested. It’s not about coming clean, it’s not about altruism, and it’s not about rehabilitation. Here’s why: Van der Sloot was not charged in the United States with Holloway’s murder; her disappearance and death occurred entirely in Aruba.

In the U.S., crime is traditionally prosecuted only in the place where it occurs. Only rarely will state or federal criminal law apply beyond the geographical confines of the state or country. State prosecution for crimes committed overseas is limited almost exclusively to situations where at least some elements of the offense are committed within the state. Holloway’s home state of Alabama had no jurisdiction over her killing, since Van der Sloot didn’t, for example, conspire with anyone in Alabama.

By contrast, federal law does allow for extraterritorial application of federal criminal law in limited situations. For example, the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States” allows the federal government to prosecute crimes of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, rape and assault of a U.S. national when that occurs outside the U.S. But even then, the crime must happen outside the jurisdiction of any nation or on the “high seas.” Holloway’s death undoubtedly occurred on the island of Aruba, a constituent country of the Netherlands and not on a ship at sea, sailing without a flag.

So did Van der Sloot’s admission expose him to criminal consequences in Aruba? Not likely.

While there is generally no statute of limitations for murder in the U.S., Aruba has a relatively short 12-year statute of limitations, meaning that Van der Sloot has likely successfully evaded a murder prosecution for Holloway’s death in Aruba in 2005.

So, if Van der Sloot faced minimal risk for admitting to killing Holloway, what was the benefit? A favorable plea deal. Van der Sloot entered into an agreement with federal prosecutors to provide information about Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in exchange for a 20-year sentence.

Judge Manasco honored Van der Sloot’s deal with prosecutors and sentenced him to the agreed-upon 20 years. But is 20 years of federal time a “good” deal?

The federal system has no parole; offenders in federal prisons actually serve their sentences. The best they can usually do is about a 15% reduction for good time served.

But Van der Sloot may not spend any time in a U.S. prison. His federal prison term will run concurrently with a sentence in Peru, where he’s already serving 28 years for the murder of college student Stephany Flores.

Van der Sloot will only be returned to the U.S. to serve his federal sentence if his Peruvian prison term ends early. If he serves more than 20 years in Peru, it appears his 20-year U.S. prison sentence will effectively be zero years. His entire experience with the U.S. justice system could already be over, after a single in-person hearing.

Van der Sloot entered into this plea deal to benefit himself, and no one else.

When Van der Sloot pleaded guilty to extortion and wire fraud, he claimed to have embraced Christianity. So did he admit to killing Holloway because, as he now claims, he’s no longer the person he was nearly two decades ago? Not likely. Many prisoners adopt the persona of the reformed penitent because it serves their interests in an institutional environment. Whether or not he’s found Jesus, Van der Sloot entered into this plea deal to benefit himself, and no one else.

Don’t forget, Van der Sloot already lied to the Holloway family and their lawyer when he assured them that Holloway’s “body was placed under the foundation of a building near the Aruba Racquet Club.” That was a lie. Van der Sloot later admitted that the information he offered the Holloway family for money was “worthless.”

So were federal prosecutors duped by Van der Sloot? Not at all — quite the opposite. Getting Van der Sloot to the U.S. to face justice was quite an accomplishment. Federal prosecutors should be praised for pursuing a plea deal that included some measure of closure for Holloway’s family. This was the best they could do, given their jurisdictional limitations.

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