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Somali Pirates’ Defense Lawyers Argue Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional

A Marina del Rey couple, along with two friends, were killed by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Attorneys representing three Somali pirates that were involved in the deaths of Marina del Rey couple Jean and Scott Adam and their two friends are asking a federal judge to stop prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

The lawyers argue that the infrequency and inconsistency in sentencing people to death in federal cases renders the federal death penalty unconstitutional, according to court documents. And referring to dozens of federal death penalty cases, lawyers said the imposition of death in such cases is arbitrary.  

“All of the cases are by their own terms horrible, and all involved the infliction of agony on victims and survivors and yet, for indiscernible reasons, some defendants were sentenced to death, while the overwhelming majority were not,” a filing submitted on Sept. 17 said. 

The defense attorneys also argue that judicial death sentencing is prejudiced, as the majority of people killed by the government have been minorities, about 70 percent, according to a Justice Department review of cases from 1988 to 2000.

Defendants Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar face several charges stemming from the February 2011 hijacking of the Quest, the Adams' yacht, including hostage-taking resulting in death, violence against maritime navigation and kidnapping resulting in death. 

When they hijacked the boat, the pirates were trying to make their way back to Somalia, but four U.S. Navy warships shadowed the yacht and negotiations began for the release of the Adams and another couple, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay from Seattle.

However, the talks went awry and pirates shot all four hostages. U.S. Navy SEALs boarded the yacht after hearing gunfire and killed two of the 19 pirates on board. Two other hijackers were found already dead on the yacht.

Jean and Scott Adam were parishioners at St. Monica Catholic Church and members of the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey. The couple had been on an around-the-world voyage, distributing Bibles.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the decision to seek the death penalty in May and prosecutors have yet to respond to the filing.

Federal executions are rare. Only 2.7 percent of defendants in federal court eligible for the death penalty have been executed since 1988, according to the Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which monitors death penalty cases. 

Twelve other pirates in the case have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. 

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