Miladin Kovacevic accepts plea deal

Updated: September 14, 2010, 4:42 PM ET
Associated Press

BELGRADE, Serbia -- Lawyers reached a plea bargain Tuesday under which a Serb college basketball player charged with beating an American student into a coma would serve about two years in prison in his homeland, potentially ending a case that had strained relations with the U.S.

The victim's family denounced the deal as too lenient and said Serb prosecutors should reconsider it.

The punishment does not fit the crime. This was a dastardly deed that almost killed Bryan Steinhauer. His injuries and suffering are worth more than two years.

-- U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer

Under the agreement, 23-year-old Miladin Kovacevic would plead guilty to the brutal beating of Bryan Steinhauer and be sentenced to two years and three months -- with three months of that already having been served in the U.S. and Serbia. He would have faced up to eight years in prison if convicted by the First Municipal Court in Belgrade of inflicting severe bodily harm with possible deadly consequences.

The plea bargain must still be approved by the court, which said it would rule on Sept. 27.

Kovacevic is accused of repeatedly kicking Steinhauer in the chest and head after a barroom brawl in May 2008, near Binghamton University. The beating left the 24-year-old New Yorker with skull fractures and a severe brain injury.

The agreement was confirmed by Kovacevic's lawyer, Borivoje Borovic, and the Serbian prosecutor's office.

In a statement Tuesday, Steinhauer's family said they were told about the potential deal Sunday and told prosecutors they could not accept it because "the proposed sentence was far too lenient."

"They have apparently decided to proceed with the deal despite our opposition," the statement said. "If this is the case, we are very disappointed. We have patiently waited for more than two years for justice to be served, and if this is to be the outcome, we feel our trust was misplaced. We hope that they will reconsider their position."

Kovacevic was first charged in the United States. But he jumped bail and fled to Serbia, which refused to hand him over to the U.S., citing local laws banning extradition.

Hillary Rodham Clinton intervened in the case, demanding Kovacevic's extradition -- first as a U.S. senator and later as secretary of state -- as did U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

The Serbian government eventually paid $900,000 to Steinhauer's family as part of an agreement that also called for putting Kovacevic on trial in Belgrade.

In a statement Tuesday, Schumer also criticized the plea bargain.

"The punishment does not fit the crime," he said. "This was a dastardly deed that almost killed Bryan Steinhauer. His injuries and suffering are worth more than two years."

But Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, said he was confident the deal would not strain relations with the U.S. again.

"I don't think we can find ourselves in such a situation again," Tadic said.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the prosecutor to offer the deal. Serbian authorities have been under U.S. pressure to speed up the trial, which had already been postponed twice -- first in June and again on Monday.

Judges ordered the second delay after Borovic filed a motion demanding that the court reject evidence provided by the U.S.

Kovacevic is additionally charged with obtaining a fake passport to flee the United States after the fight.

Also on trial with Kovacevic are two former Serbian diplomats, who are charged with abusing their positions when they provided the false passport to Kovacevic.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press