NORFOLK, Va. — Lawyers for three Somali men accused of killing four Americans aboard a yacht claim the deaths resulted from actions by the U.S. Navy and the FBI.
Defense lawyers say an unstable situation was created by what they call “aggressive actions” by the Navy and “the failure to conduct the negotiations with the Somalis in a proper fashion.”
Media outlets say defense lawyers made these arguments in motions filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk.
Co-defendants Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar could face the death penalty if they're convicted.
The owners of the yacht Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first Americans to be killed in a wave of pirate attacks off the coast of east Africa despite an international flotilla of warships that regularly patrol the area. The Adamses had been sailing full-time on their 58-foot yacht since December 2004 after retiring when their boat was boarded by 19 men several hundred miles south of Oman.
Pirates had been hoping to bring the Americans back to Somalia to conduct ransom negotiations, but that plan fell apart when U.S. Navy warships began shadowing the Quest. The Navy had told the pirates that they could keep the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but they refused to take the deal because they didn't believe they would get enough money. The only person authorized to negotiate the Americans' release was also based in Somalia.
The destroyer USS Sterett was maneuvering between the Quest and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it. Soon after, shots were fired on board the Quest.
Four of the hijackers died on board. Eleven other men have pleaded guilty to piracy and been sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the case.
Defense lawyers say the yacht captain, fearing the hijackers would harm him and the other hostages, repeatedly asked Navy officials not to come too close in the days leading up to the incident. The Navy agreed each time.
“While the defense does not contend that the actions of the Navy/FBI are legal defenses to any of the charges, it is without dispute that none of the Americans had been harmed until the Navy/FBI acted in an extremely aggressive fashion,” defense lawyers wrote.
They filed another motion seeking a change of venue for the trial, claiming that the Navy's large presence in Norfolk and local media coverage likely has tainted the jury pool. They also noted that a movie about Somali piracy starring Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”, was filmed in part in Norfolk. The movie is about the captain of a cargo ship captured by Somali pirates in 2009.