NORFOLK, Virginia (AP) — Trial is set to begin Tuesday in the U.S. for three Somali men charged with piracy and the 2011 murders of four Americans aboard a yacht off the coast of eastern Africa.
Yachts owners Jean and Scott Adam and their friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay were shot to death in February 2011 after they were taken hostage at sea.
Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar could face the death penalty if convicted. In all, 22 of the 26 counts they face are offenses eligible for the death penalty, including hostage-taking resulting in death, violence against maritime navigation resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death.
Eleven other men have pleaded guilty to piracy and been sentenced to life in prison, although prosecutors don't believe any fired the fatal shots. They are expected to testify against the three charged with murder in exchange for the possibility of reduced sentences and eventual deportation to Somalia.
The Adamses' boat was boarded by 19 men who sought to kidnap and ransom the Americans for millions of dollars. The plan fell through when a U.S. Navy warship began shadowing the yacht as it made its way toward Somalia.
The Navy told the pirates they could keep the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but they refused because they didn't believe they would get enough money for the boat, according to court records. The pirates said the only person authorized to negotiate was based in Somalia.
The destroyer USS Sterett was maneuvering between the yacht and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it. Shots then rang out aboard the yacht. Other pirates have said they tried to stop the shooting, but by the time Navy SEALs scrambled aboard, each of the Americans had been shot. Four hijackers died on board.
Executions under federal law are extremely rare. Only three out of more than 1,300 executions in the U.S. since 1976 have been carried out by the federal government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty statistics and is opposed to the death penalty.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the decision to seek the death penalty. Ultimately, the government is trying to send a message to would-be pirates: Stay away from U.S.-flagged vessels.
Defense attorneys have objected to the possibility of the death penalty for Salad because they claim he is mentally handicapped. A ruling on that issue isn't expected until the trial is over.