NORFOLK, Virginia (AP) — Attorneys for three Somalis charged with murdering four U.S. yachters in a pirate attack said there's no physical evidence proving their clients fired the shots that killed the Americans during a moment of chaos as U.S. Navy warships and special forces circled nearby off the coast of Africa.
The yacht's 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. They were the first Americans to be killed during a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in recent years, despite an international flotilla of warships that regularly patrol the area.
Eleven men have already pleaded guilty in the case and are serving mandatory life sentences. The men have said they intended to take the Americans back to Somalia and hold them for ransom. Their plan fell apart after U.S. Navy warships began shadowing the yacht.
What triggered the killings is unclear, but prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on the general timeline. They said one man aboard the yacht fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the USS Sterett, a guided-missile destroyer that had been maneuvering between the yacht and the Somali coast. Meanwhile, small boats of Navy SEALs were in the water, and a U.S. Navy helicopter with a sniper on board was hovering overhead.
Almost immediately after the RPG was fired, shots rang out aboard the yacht. Each of the Americans was shot numerous times. Two pirates were also killed in a hail of gunfire.
Defense attorney Larry Dash said it was U.S. Navy snipers who fired the first shots. That contradicts prosecutors' account.
The three men charged in the murders are Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar.
In all, 22 of the 26 counts against the defendants are death-eligible offenses. Piracy carries a mandatory life sentence.
Executions under federal law are 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 in this case. Ultimately, the U.S. is trying to send a message to would-be pirates: Stay away from U.S.-flagged vessels.
Associated Press writer Brock Vergakis contributed.