Doctor Charged in Wife's Death Fights Extradition from Cyprus

CLEVELAND (AP) - A doctor charged with killing his wife with cyanide is fighting extradition from Cyprus by contending that U.S. authorities will seek the death penalty against him.

But Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason says he can't seek a death sentence in the case.

Dr. Yazeed Essa disappeared after his wife, Rosemarie Essa, 38, collapsed in her car and died on Feb. 24, 2005, about five miles from the couple's suburban Gates Mills home.

He was arrested in October 2006, in Cyprus as he attempted to clear customs after arriving from Beirut, Lebanon.

Nearly five months later, Essa is still in a jail in Cyprus. A hearing is scheduled for March 12.

The 38-year-old was indicted in February 2006 on an aggravated murder charge and, if convicted, he could face a sentence of life in prison with no parole possible for 20 years.

Cyprus will not extradite any individual who faces a possible death sentence, said Mason, who noted that under Ohio law the charge against Essa makes him ineligible for the death penalty.

"Because we're not seeking the death penalty, it shouldn't be an issue," Mason said. "But they keep raising it like it is an issue."

Larry Zukerman, Essa's Cleveland-based attorney, said he believes prosecutors are trying to leave an opening to seek the death penalty once Essa steps onto U.S. soil.

"Everything that Mr. Mason has done has been legally insufficient to ensure any authority that the death penalty cannot nor will be imposed," Zukerman said.

Mason said he offered to enter a written agreement with Zukerman stating that he will not seek the death penalty.

Zukerman said that's not the proper procedure.

"I have absolutely no legal authority to enter into the terms of the extradition agreement," he said. "I'm not a country."

Marios Georgiou, Essa's lawyer in Cyprus, said Zukerman will testify at the extradition hearing as an expert witness.

"I will ask court to exercise its discretion not to send him back to America because there is a possibility he will face the death sentence, something considered a violation of human rights in Europe," Georgiou said.

It's up to Cyprus to ask for assurances that Essa will not face the death penalty. For authorities to proceed with the case means they consider what they received satisfactory, Georgiou said.

But Georgiou is concerned that Mason's wording in his extradition request leaves room to amend the charge at any stage and seek the death penalty.

Cypriot authorities declined to comment saying the court will make the final decision.

Zukerman last saw Essa in December and said he was being treated fairly by authorities in Cyprus.

Prosecutors have characterized Essa, known as "Yaz," as a philanderer. They have called Rosemarie Essa's murder a "divorce substitute," saying the doctor was having an affair with a nurse and wanted to be free of his wife.

Before Rosemarie Essa died, she called a friend on a cell phone, gasping for air, and said her husband made her take calcium pills and she didn't feel well, prosecutors say. They have called it their key piece of evidence in the case.

Authorities believe that after his wife's death, Essa, an emergency room doctor, traveled to Syria, Greece and Lebanon and possibly visited Florida. Cypriot authorities questioned Essa when he arrived because they suspected his travel documents were fraudulent.

Essa left behind the couple's two children, who were 4 and 2 when he disappeared in March 2005. Rosemarie Essa's brother Dominic DiPuccio has taken custody of the children and has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Yazeed Essa.