Attorneys for three Somali men charged in the deaths of four Americans during a pirate attack in the Arabian Sea last year say the Navy and FBI’s efforts to rescue the hostages led to the killings.
Defense lawyers also asked that the high-profile federal trial be moved out of Norfolk, where they argue deep pride in the Navy and an unusual interest in piracy cases will make it difficult to assemble an objective jury.
The arguments were spelled out in a series of motions filed by the defense team Monday.
Co-defendants Ahmed Muse Salad, Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar and Abukar Osman Beyle face the death penalty on murder, kidnapping, piracy and related charges.
The men are accused of pirating the yacht Quest in February 2011 in the Arabian Sea and killing the vessel’s owners, Scott Underwood Adam and Jean Savage Adam of the Los Angeles area, and their friends Phyllis Patricia Macay and Robert Campbell Riggle of Seattle.
The pirates hoped to take the Americans back to Somalia and begin ransom negotiations, according to court records, but the plan fell apart when Navy warships began shadowing the yacht.
The destroyer Sterett was maneuvering between the Quest and the Somali coast when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the warship.
As the Navy destroyer closed on the yacht, according to court records, shots were fired on board the Quest, resulting in the deaths of the four passengers and two hijackers.
A team of Navy SEALs boarded the yacht, and two more Somalis were killed, records show.
The Navy’s “aggressive actions” and “the failure to conduct the negotiations with the Somalis in a proper fashion” created an unstable situation “that resulted in the violent deaths of eight individuals,” defense lawyers argued.
The motion seeks to compel the government to produce documents spelling out the rules of engagement and negotiation tactics used during the mission.
In recorded radio conversations in the days leading up to the incident, according to the motion, the yacht captain repeatedly asked Navy officials not to come too close, fearing the pirates would hurt him and the other hostages. Each time, the Navy agreed, the motion said.
“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.
Larry Dash, an assistant federal public defender and one of seven attorneys representing the Somalis, said Tuesday the defense team did not wish to comment.
In a separate motion, the defense asked for a change of venue. They argued that Norfolk’s large Navy presence and local media coverage of the case had likely tainted the jury pool.
“Furthermore, this trial will begin less than three months after a major Hollywood motion picture about Somali piracy, starring Tom Hanks, filmed, in part, in Norfolk, is set to premier[e],” the lawyers wrote.
The film, “Captain Phillips,” is about the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips was rescued when Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed the pirates from the fantail of the destroyer Bainbridge.
A poll conducted by the defense found that more than 65 percent of Norfolk residents had heard of the case, and about 31 percent had already decided that the defendants are “definitely guilty.”
Defense attorneys also cited user comments left on an April 2010 online poll posted onwww.pilotonline.com that asked if pirate suspects should be brought to Norfolk for trial. Among them: “[F]rankly I’d just shoot ‘em right there and throw their carcasses in the water…. Do that enough and you start weeding the opposition down!!”
The case is scheduled to go to trial in June next year, Dash said.
Eleven Somalis have pleaded guilty to taking part in the attack; each denied shooting the Americans. All received life sentences in agreeing to testify against the three defendants.