WASHINGTON – Three Somali pirates were sentenced to life in prison Friday for the shooting deaths of four Americans, including two people from Seattle, in a 2011 hijacking off the coast of East Africa.
A federal jury in Norfolk, Va., decided not to impose the death penalty on Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar after each was convicted last month on 26 counts including piracy and murder. The piracy convictions carry mandatory life sentences.
Jurors began deliberations Thursday and quickly reached a decision in the first murder trial involving pirates in the United States in nearly two centuries.
Scott and Jean Adam, retirees from Marina del Rey, Calif., were midway in an around-the-world voyage aboard their 58-foot sloop, the Quest, with two friends, Robert Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, when Somalis armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers captured the boat in February 2011. Prosecutors argued that the Somalis wanted to hold the Americans for ransom, part of a rash of pirate attacks in the waters off East Africa.
Four U.S. warships patrolling the area encircled the Quest, and Navy negotiators attempted to gain the release of the hostages. But with talks breaking down, prosecutors said, the pirates panicked and unleashed a barrage of gunfire, killing the Americans. Defense attorneys had pleaded with jurors for leniency, describing the Somalis as impoverished men raised in a war-ravaged country who turned to piracy to eke out a living.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991, which has allowed criminal gangs and pirate networks to operate freely from its remote northern stretches for years. But since 2011, a crackdown by the United States and international navies has dramatically reduced attacks in the Indian Ocean and jailed about 1,150 piracy suspects.
Twelve men previously had been convicted of piracy or pleaded guilty to piracy in the Quest incident. All were sentenced to life terms.
Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty in the case of Salad, Beyle and Abrar, arguing that the men fired the fatal shots.
Scott Adam, 70, an assistant director on films and TV shows such as “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Love Boat,” had sailed around the world multiple times. He and Jean Adam, 66, a former dentist, had the Quest custom built in New Zealand and were fond of distributing Bibles when they docked in far-off ports.
But they had never before sailed from Mumbai, India, to Salalah, Oman, as they were attempting to do in February 2011 with Riggle, 67, and Macay, 59, as crew members. For part of the journey they sailed with a convoy for safety but for unknown reasons had become separated from the group. The Quest was alone about 200 miles off the coast of Oman when it was captured.