'What's Going On?'

The buzz at the Palais de Justice in Bordeaux last Thursday morning was certain: that hippie icon Ira Einhorn, after 20 years of running from a murder rap, was going to beat the system. The sisters of Holly Maddux, the woman whose mummified body was found in a trunk in Einhorn's apartment, feared that a three-judge panel would rule that the 58-year-old fugitive need not answer for the 1977 killing, despite the Philadelphia jury that convicted him in absentia. Einhorn's lawyers, who had been urging the French judges to refuse extradition to the United States, described their case as a slam-dunk win. And the huge media throng gathered at the courthouse had their headlines prepared: GURU KILLER'S LUCKY STREAK CONTINUES.

Certainly a smiling, goateed Ira Einhorn, joking with his lawyers and wife, Annika, before raising his hand for the ruling, seemed confident. But when chief Judge Claude Arrighi announced a "favorable decision for the request of extradition," Einhorn looked stunned. "What?" he exclaimed, even as the judges quickly gathered their papers and left the room. "What's going on?"

Here's what: the end of Einhorn's dream of living a pampered expatriate life in the tiny cognac-region village of Champagne-Mouton. It was a dream begun in desperation in 1981, when Einhorn jumped bail to avoid being tried for the murder of Maddux, 30, a Bryn Mawr grad who disappeared in 1977 and was found dead from a brutal beating in his west Philly apartment 18 months later. His departure was a betrayal to dozens of influential friends who believed that he stood for peace, love and justice. (Not to mention the lawyer who sprung him with a bail of $4,000 in cash--soon-to-be-senator Arlen Specter.) After avoiding capture in Ireland and Sweden in the '80s, Einhorn settled in France with a new bride, wealthy Swede Annika Floden, until Philadelphia authorities--who'd never given up on their high-profile fugitive--nabbed him in June 1977. But when they tried to bring him home, Einhorn's legal team exploited French pride to foil extradition, on the ground that his 1993 trial, held in absentia, was a "barbaric" violation of human rights that the Gallic system could not tolerate. In response, Pennsylvania passed a law ensuring that fugitives in such circumstances could be retried upon their return. On this basis Einhorn was rearrested last year, and his case reheard, with his lawyers insisting that the American guarantee of a new trial can't be trusted.

But to Einhorn's astonishment, the Cour d'Appel ruled that if the United States did indeed agree to grant that trial, Einhorn should be returned to the land of soft pretzels and hard time. (Another qualification was that the prosecutors not invoke the death penalty, a moot point since the murder occurred before Pennsylvania's capital-punishment law.) Though Einhorn will appeal, the higher courts rarely overturn such decisions. Einhorn lawyer Dominique Tricaud instead pins his client's hopes on a groundswell of support by the French people, goaded by an anti-American press and political rabble-rousers. But for this gambit to succeed, the French prime minister, who must ultimately execute the decret d'extradition, would have to defy his country's court, and cause what would be a serious rift between France and the United States. Unlikely.

But the news was not all bad for Einhorn: the judges also granted him freedom pending appeal. An odd decision, considering that Einhorn has always insisted he would never serve a jail sentence, and obviously has acted accordingly. In the expected year or two before a final ruling, he has plenty of time to go underground once more, and many expect he will. Many people assume that instead of pursuing his regimen of writing, organic gardening and conspiracy-theory chatting on the Internet (where his buddies ignore the evidence and speculate whether Holly was really murdered by a mysterious Serb assassin), Einhorn is planning another escape. "He has the money to flee and the wherewithal to flee--what does that tell you?" says Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham.

Still, after decades of constant setbacks in seeking justice for Holly Maddux, Ira Einhorn's pursuers were grateful: half a loaf of French bread is better than none. "We've gotten over a huge hurdle," says the victim's sister Buffy Hall. On Thursday even Dominique Tricaud was admitting that "Life is a little more difficult for Einhorn now than it was this morning." But not as difficult as it could have been.