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US Jurisdiction Disputed in Somali Pirate Case

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

Defense lawyers are arguing that the pirates who allegedly killed a Marina del Rey couple were within Somalian territorial waters and thus outside the jurisdiction of U.S. criminal law.

The attorneys contend that Somalian waters extend 200 nautical miles based on Somalian law. But in court documents filed Wednesday, prosecutors argue that Somalia ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, that only extends a country’s border to 12 nautical miles from its shore. 

Somali pirates face charges from the February 2011 kidnapping and murder of Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey and friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle. The Americans were killed 40 miles off-shore. 

“The defendants argument is contrary to international law, contrary to Somalia law, contrary to United States law, and inconsistent with the international battle against Somali piracy that has been waged for the last several years,” prosecutors wrote in a document filed Wednesday.

At the moment, five countries that signed the U.N treaty claim a 200 nautical mile jurisdiction, including Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, Somalia and Benin.  

Defense lawyers also argue that because the U.S. never signed the Law of the Sea treaty, it therefore cannot use it to determine Somalia’s marine boundary.

Additionally, although the Quest was an American yacht, flying an American flag, it became a pirate ship once it was hijacked and therefore the U.S. has no authority of a pirated vessel on the high seas. 

“The United States does not have prescriptive jurisdiction over foreign nationals for murder and firearm offenses committed in the territorial waters of a foreign sovereign,” defense attorneys wrote.

When the pirates hijacked the boat, they were trying to make their way back to Somali, but four U.S. Navy warships followed them and Navy SEALs boarded the yacht after hearing gunfire. The pirates shot and killed all four Americans.

In September, defense attorneys also argued the constitutionality of the death penalty, saying that in the last few decades, courts have imposed the death sentence arbitrarily and with a bias for minorities. 

Twelve other men in the case have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A jury trial for the remaining three men is scheduled to start in June. 

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