NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Defense attorneys for three Somalis charged with murdering four American yachters in a pirate hijacking said Thursday 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 attorneys also suggested during opening statements in federal court that the other 11 men who have already pleaded guilty to piracy in the case have a vested interest in testifying against their clients, noting that they agreed to testify in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence. The 11 are currently serving mandatory life sentences.
The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death in February 2011 after they were taken hostage at sea several hundred miles south of Oman. 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.
The men who have pleaded guilty in the case 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 Quest.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Samuels said that after the Navy established contact with the Quest, the 19 men who boarded the American yacht split into two factions. One group wanted to accept the Navy's offer to release the Americans and be allowed to return to Somalia with the Quest. The other faction repeatedly threatened to kill the Americans if they weren't allowed to proceed to Somalia with them.
Samuels said the three men charged in the murders — Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar — fell into the more aggressive camp.
What triggered the killings is unclear, but prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on the general timeline. They said one of the men aboard the pirated 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 also hovering overhead.
Almost immediately after the RPG was fired, shots rang out aboard the yacht. Each of the Americans was shot numerous times. Scott Adam survived the initial gunfire only to be approached by pirates a second time minutes later and shot again. Two pirates were also killed in a hail of gunfire at the time.
However, defense attorney Larry Dash said it was U.S. Navy snipers that fired the first shots. That contradicts prosecutors' account. Samuels said the Sterett's commanding officer had previously given an order not to return fire if fired upon.
Samuels said the Navy fired no shots until a team of SEALs boarded the yacht 10 minutes later, shooting one pirate dead. Another pirate who pretended to be injured fought with a SEAL and was stabbed to death. The Americans were flown aboard the USS Enterprise to be treated for their wounds, but medical personnel were unable to save them.
Prosecutors said they will show video taken by the Navy in the moments before and after the shootings took place. Some of the video shows who was standing where as the shots rang out.
Numerous Navy personnel are expected to testify, along with as dozens of FBI and NCIS agents, including some who specialize in ballistic and forensic evidence. The trial is expected to last six weeks.
Despite all the witnesses, DNA samples and ballistic experts, Dash said there is no physical evidence proving his client fired the fatal shot. Samuels noted that some DNA evidence wasn't available because of exposure to weather during the two days that the Quest was towed to Djibouti following the shootings.
That distinction could help determine whether the men face the death penalty. In all, In all, 22 of the 26 counts against the defendants are death-eligible offenses. Jury selection took more than two days, in part, because of questions about jurors' views of the death penalty. 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. Ultimately, the U.S. is trying to send a message to would-be pirates: Stay away from U.S.-flagged vessels
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis