ANGELES CITY, NOVEMBER 14,  2003   (STAR) A California judge rejected the other day the request by the Philippine government for the extradition of American Roger Lawrence Strunk to stand trial for the Nov. 7, 2001 murder of his wife, actress Nida Blanca.

US magistrate Gregory Hollows ruled Wednesday that the Philippine government did not provide adequate evidence to justify the return of Strunk, 63, a former recording artist and B-movie actor known as Rod Lauren.

Strunk was the government’s lead suspect in the stabbing death of Blanca, 65.

Blanca, Dorothy Jones in real life, appeared in 163 movies and was one of the nation’s most revered actresses.

The ruling ended a six-month legal battle by Strunk and his attorneys for the suspect to remain in the United States, where he arrived two months after his wife’s killing in Greenhills, San Juan.

Federal marshals arrested Strunk last May in Tracy, a town 100 kilometers east of San Francisco, at the request of the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ).

Attorneys described the case as the Filipino equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial. Filipino authorities accused Strunk of being the mastermind behind Blanca’s stabbing death, a drama that has gripped the nation of 80 million people and many of the two million Filipino-Americans living in the US.

Government authorities say Strunk was upset with his wealthy wife over money.

Strunk’s attorney, Jeffrey Kravitz, said the ruling "must come as a great shock to the government."

Kravitz had argued that Strunk was "framed," and that the only evidence against him was the word of another suspect, who later recanted his confession with claims that police had tortured him. Kravitz said Strunk loved his wife of more than 20 years and would die in jail if he was sent back to the Philippines.

A spokeswoman for US attorney Kenneth Melikian, who represented the Philippine government in the extradition case, said he would not comment on Hollows’ decision. Melikian had argued the government provided enough evidence to justify Strunk’s appearance at a murder trial before a judge.

DOJ Undersecretary Merceditas Gutierrez said the California ruling would also pave the way for Strunk’s release from the Sacramento county jail, where he has been held since his provisional arrest on May 13.

Gutierrez also said the DOJ would appeal Hollows’ decision through the US Justice Department.

"This (denial) might be the end of (the extradition request) but we will still see what we can do with the help of our US counterpart," she said.

Gutierrez said the news shocked her, as both the US and Philippine justice departments had been confident the evidence submitted to the California court was enough to show probable cause and merit Strunk’s extradition.

"This is the first time that we are asking for an American national to be extradited," she said. "That is why we had been very careful. We were not expecting the denial because even our US counterparts had been very optimistic that we would win this case."

She also said they had been "in constant communication (with the US Justice Department), so they cannot say that we neglected it. If there is a shortcoming, then it is not totally on our part because we were only working on the advice of the American lawyers. They would be in the first position to know what documents should be submitted in support of our request for extradition."

"We were saddened because we did everything we could to convince the US court that Mr. Strunk should be extradited. We have been doing this for a long time now and we won in many cases, especially when it was only for establishment of probable cause," Gutierrez said.

Hollows’ ruling, she said, "was really surprising because we already succeeded in getting an arrest warrant and Mr. Strunk was detained. That would show that there was really a cause for his extradition to the Philippines." — Aurea Calica, Cecille Suerte Felipe and AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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