NORFOLK, Va. -- All three Somalis convicted by a federal jury on murder, piracy and other charges stemming from a yacht hijacking that left four Americans dead will face potential death sentences at sentencing later this month, including a man defense attorneys had claimed was mentally handicapped.
Court records show the jury found Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar guilty on all 26 counts against them late Monday. Of those, 22 counts are eligible for the death penalty.
The charges stemmed from the hijacking of the yacht Quest in February 2011. 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 several days after they were taken hostage at sea as the U.S. Navy tried to negotiate their release.
The Americans were taken hostage by 19 men who intended to bring them back to Somalia where they hoped to ransom them for millions of dollars. They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in recent years.
Defense attorneys for Salad had argued he should not be eligible for the death penalty because they claimed he is mentally handicapped. Defense documents say Salad has a low IQ, a poor memory and had difficulty functioning as a child in Somalia. Defense attorneys also noted in court filings that his co-defendants describe Salad as "slow" and inept at fishing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has banned executing those with certain mental disabilities.
Prosecutors said Salad is competent and late Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith issued an order concurring with that assessment.
"To summarize, the court finds that Salad failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he suffers from significant deficits in intellectual functioning or adaptive skills. Thus, he is determined not to be intellectually disabled, and is, therefore, eligible for the death penalty, if so imposed by the jury," Smith wrote in her order.
The eligibility phase of the trial to determine if aggravating factors are present ahead of sentencing begins next week. The sentencing phase of the trial would begin July 22. With piracy carrying a mandatory life sentence, the only major looming question is whether the men will get the death penalty.
The decision to seek the death penalty was made by Attorney General Eric Holder. In a filing by federal prosecutors signaling their intent to seek the death penalty, they noted that the men killed or attempted to kill more than one person during a single episode and endangered the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy was shadowing the yacht Quest when shots rang out aboard the yacht and the Americans were killed "in an especially wanton and gratuitous manner," prosecutors wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case Tuesday, citing the ongoing nature of the trial.
Executions under federal law are extremely rare, with only a handful out of more than 1,300 executions since 1976 having 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.
Eleven other defendants who were aboard the Quest have already pleaded guilty to piracy and have been sentenced to life in prison. During the murder trial, defense attorneys said jurors should question their testimony because they agreed to do so in exchange for the possibility of receiving a reduced sentence.
Four other suspected pirates were killed aboard the yacht. A fifth suspected pirate was released because he was a juvenile. Another man who prosecutors say was a land-based negotiator and the highest-ranking pirate they've ever captured has also been convicted of piracy and sentenced to a dozen life sentences in prison.