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Somali Pirates Challenge Death Penalty, Calling It ‘Unconstitutional’

posted: 10/1/2012
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- Attorneys for three Somalis charged with murder in the shooting deaths of four Americans aboard a yacht off the coast of east Africa want a federal judge to prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty because they contend it is unconstitutional.            

Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar face a number of charges that could bring them the death penalty arising from the February 2011 hijacking of the yacht Quest, owned by murdered Marina del Rey boaters Jean and Scott Adam. Charges include hostage-taking resulting in death, violence against maritime navigation resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death.            

In all, 22 of the 26 counts with which the defendants are charged are death-eligible offenses. Their trial is scheduled to begin in 2013, and they have pleaded not guilty.            

“Most of the awful kind of criminal cases you can think of are covered by state law,” said Jeff Bellin, a law professor at the College of William and Mary. “The federal death penalty is unusual just because there’s not that many cases that fall under it.”             Attorneys for the Somali suspects wrote in a court filing that the federal death penalty’s infrequent use makes it arbitrary and unconstitutional, violating defendants’ rights to due process, equal protection of the law and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.            

Bellin, who reviewed the court filing, said defense attorneys broke little new legal ground with their challenge. “It’s an active case so I don’t want to doom them to failure, but in terms of, legally, the arguments they’re making in this motion are not new legal challenges, and they’ve generally been rejected by the courts,” he said.            

The decision to seek the death penalty was made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.            

Jean and Scott Adam, 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. Their 58-foot boat was boarded several hundred miles south of Oman by 19 men who were looking to ransom hostages.            

Twelve other men connected to the case have already either pleaded guilty or been convicted of piracy and sentenced to life in prison. 

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