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Will Pirates Who Allegedly Killed Americans Be Prosecuted In U.S.? And If So, Where?

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The fate of the Somali pirates who allegedly killed four Americans off the coast of Somalia has yet to be determined, but the U.S. Justice Department says it is "investigating and reviewing" evidence in the case and is "committed to working with our international partners to ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to justice."

The four Americans were on a yacht in the waters off the Horn of Africa when their vessel was hijacked Friday. U.S. forces were following the hijacked yacht when on Tuesday at least some of the hijackers opened fire. The hostages -- Scott and Jean Adam of California, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle -- had suffered fatal wounds.

If the U.S. government decides to handle this case in the same way it has handled other recent cases of Somali pirates targeting U.S. ships, the 15 surviving Somalis currently aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier near the Horn of Africa will soon be heading for a U.S. courtroom.

The United States may not have many other options. In early 2009, Kenya and several Western countries entered into an agreement whereby Kenya would prosecute pirates captured by Western forces. But Kenya became overwhelmed by the volume of cases, and in late 2010 Kenya canceled the agreement, according to reports at the time.

Should the Justice Department, along with other U.S. authorities, decide to prosecute the 15 pirates in the United States, one of four U.S. attorneys' offices around the country could end up with the case: the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia, the Western District of Washington or the Central District of California.

Asked whether those districts are in fact in the mix, a Justice Department spokesman declined to answer, saying he is "not going to speculate on any potential venues at this time." Past cases and common Justice Department procedures, however, indicate why these venues could be in the mix:

SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

The FBI's New York Field Office has jurisdiction over investigations of Somali piracy. That is at least part of the reason that Abduwali Muse was brought to New York City after hijacking the Maersk Alabama container ship and holding its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in April 2009. Phillips was freed only after military snipers took out several pirates. In May, Muse pleaded guilty to his role in the hijacking, and he was recently sentenced to more than 33 years in prison. In a statement after the sentencing, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said "piracy on the high seas is a crime against the international community that will not be tolerated," and FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Janice Fedarcyk said the sentence "sends a clear message to others who would interfere with American vessels or do harm to Americans on the high seas: Whatever seas you ply, you are not beyond the reach of American justice, and you will be held accountable for your actions."

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment, and an email to the FBI's New York Field Office was not immediately returned.

EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA

Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia are the only federal prosecutors -- at least in modern history -- to have brought a Somali piracy case to trial and won convictions. In November 2010, a federal jury in Norfolk, Va, convicted five Somali men of engaging in piracy and other offenses after they attacked the U.S.S. Nicholas months earlier. The men had left Somalia in April 2010 looking for a ship to pirate, but the ship they targeted turned out to be the U.S.S. Nicholas. The five Somali men face a mandatory penalty of life in prison when they are sentenced on March 14. Their conviction "demonstrates that armed attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels are crimes against the international community and that pirates will face severe consequences in U.S. courts," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement at the time.

MacBride oversaw another case of Somali piracy. Also in November 2010, Jama Idle Ibrahim was sentenced to 30 years in prison for acts of piracy against the U.S.S. Ashland, which he believed was a merchant vessel and hoped to hold for ransom when he attacked it in April 2010. He pleaded guilty to federal charges in August 2010. Five others allegedly involved in that attack are awaiting trial, after a federal judge threw out the piracy charges against them and the U.S. government appealed that decision.

The Somalis were first brought to Norfolk -- and prosecuted there -- because the ships they attacked were based out of Norfolk. It's unclear if there would be any basis for prosecuting the 15 Somali pirates who allegedly killed four Americans this week in the Eastern District of Virginia. In any case, however, a district can obtain jurisdiction by being where defendants first arrive on U.S. soil.

A spokesman for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to comment on the most recent case or whether his office might be asked to prosecute it.

CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

The hijacked yacht, dubbed Quest, was owned by the Adam couple. While the couple had been sailing around the world for several years -- handing out Bibles wherever they went -- they maintained a home-base of sorts at a yacht club in Marina del Rey, Calif. The fact that victims in this case have a tie to the Central District of California could provide a basis to prosecute the alleged pirates there.

An email to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles was not immediately returned.

WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON

The Adams were joined on their yacht by Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle. Like with the Adams, the fact that victims in this case were from the Western District of Washington could provide a basis to prosecute the alleged pirates there.

The remains of all four victims were taken aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The 15 pirates who were allegedly involved in the fatal hijacking are being detained aboard the vessel, pending a decision on prosecution.

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