Attorneys for a Somali man charged with hijacking a yacht off the coast of Africa in 2011 and killing four Americans on board claim their client is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.
Prosecutors disagree. They argue Ahmed Muse Salad was able to support himself for decades in Somalia and even served for a time as a guard for the president of Puntland – an autonomous state in the northeastern part of the country.
“The evidence is simply inconsistent with the defense claim that he is intellectually disabled,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Hatch wrote in court papers.
A hearing on the defense’s move to prevent the death-penalty possibility began Tuesday in U.S. District Court. Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith is expected to rule later this week.
Salad is one of three men charged with murder in connection with the hijacking of the yacht Quest. A jury trial is set to begin June 3.
Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar are the other two co-defendants. If convicted, each could be executed.
According to court documents and testimony, a group of pirates hijacked the 58-foot boat Feb. 18, 2011, in the Arabian Sea. Four days later, after negotiations between the pirates and the Navy broke down, the yacht owners – Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle – were shot and killed.
Four hijackers died on the yacht, and another 12 have pleaded guilty or been convicted of piracy. Each was sentenced to life in prison.
In requests filed with the court, defense attorneys claim the federal government can’t execute Salad because of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The written arguments indicate two experts interviewed Salad and determined his intellectual functioning is significantly below average.
Evan Nelson, a forensic psychologist, said he gave Salad three IQ tests with the help of an interpreter. He said Salad’s average score was 62, and anything below 70 is viewed as intellectually disabled.
Nelson added he did not believe Salad was faking.
“If he is malingering, he is an absolutely spectacular malingerer,” Nelson testified Tuesday.
Prosecutors countered that Salad has secured a jail trustee job sweeping floors while awaiting trial and has used his money to call friends and family in Somalia. During the calls, which were recorded, he spoke at length about his case and the mental evaluations he was set to undergo.
“My case is evolving. People are working on it, do you understand?” he said, according to an excerpt of one conversation included in the government’s court papers. “At the moment, I will be taken to a hospital. I was told that my head will be checked. I will be screened.”
During another call, Salad spoke with a woman about the then-upcoming presidential election in Somalia. He told the woman he’d been reading about the election in a Somali newspaper that someone in Minnesota was sending to the jail.
“I am studying now, and I am a man with knowledge, do you understand?” Salad said, according to the documents. “I study English and other stuff.”