Federal prosecutors want three Somali pirates put to death.
Armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar hijacked a yacht off the coast of Africa in 2011 and killed the four Americans aboard – Scott Adam, Jean Adam, Phyllis Patricia Macay and Robert Riggle – after failed negotiations with the Navy. A U.S. District Court jury this month convicted Salad, Beyle and Abrar of 26 crimes – 22 punishable by death.
However, when the jury returns today to begin determining the pirates’ fates, a death sentence is far from guaranteed.
Jurors rebuff prosecution requests for death two-thirds of the time, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a two-decade-old group created by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. In the past 25 years – since the government reenacted the death penalty and added dozens of death penalty-eligible crimes to the books – only three men have been executed while in federal custody.
“It’s not as automatic as one might think,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that studies the application of capital punishment in the United States.
He noted that federal prosecutors tried and failed to get the death penalty for Timothy Nichols, one of the men behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker” who was involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks.
“Even in these terrible cases, it’s sometimes difficult to get the death penalty,” Dieter said.
Historically, capital punishment has been a constant of American jurisprudence. According to the information center, the first recorded execution in the New World was in 1608 in the Jamestown colony: Captain George Kendall was killed amid suspicion he spied for Spain.
In 1972, however, the laws changed. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote that Georgia’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional because it could result in arbitrary sentencing, the center said. The ruling effectively voided 40 state death penalty laws.
Over time, most states and the federal government reworked their laws and resurrected the sanction. Virginia reenacted its death penalty in 1975 and North Carolina in 1977, the center said.
Eighteen states do not have a death penalty. In the past six years, six states – including Maryland – voted to abolish it.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the federal government reenacted its own death penalty. At first, it was only for murders committed during the commission of drug crimes. In 1994, Congress expanded the law to include dozens of offenses, including terrorism, murder during a hostage-taking and murder related to a carjacking.
The U.S. Attorney General must authorize all death penalty prosecutions. Federal death row inmates are housed primarily at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind. The facility also is home to the federal government’s only death chamber, which uses lethal injection.
According to the resource counsel project, federal prosecutors have tried 282 defendants on death penalty-eligible charges in the past 25 years. Juries imposed 73 death sentences and 144 life sentences.
Since 1963, the federal government has executed three people:
– Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed the lives of 168 people, in June 2001,
– Juan Garza, a marijuana smuggler who murdered three people in Texas, in June 2001,
– Louis Jones Jr., a retired Army master sergeant who raped and murdered a private in Texas, in March 2003
Courts have sentenced 152 people to death in Virginia and 535 in North Carolina since those states reenacted their death penalties, the center said. Of those, 110 have been executed in Virginia and 43 in North Carolina.
Dieter said it is hard to compare the federal and state execution rates, since most murders are tried in state courts, and federal prosecutors are more able to pick and choose which cases they take to trial. However, he and several other death penalty experts agreed federal juries rarely impose the ultimate sanction.
“The numbers are small,” he said.
Dieter hypothesized attorney pay might play a role in why federal juries appear more reluctant to send defendants to their deaths.
Attorneys appointed to defend suspects in federal capital punishment cases are paid up to $178 per hour. In Virginia, appointed attorneys are paid an “amount deemed reasonable by the court” – usually between $100 and $150 per hour. In North Carolina, appointed attorneys make $85 per hour.
“You get what you pay for,” Dieter said.
Douglas Ramseur, the chief public defender for capital murder cases in the state courts of southeast Virginia, said federal judges usually give defense attorneys more time to prepare a capital case than state judges. He added that defense attorneys involved in federal death penalty cases – whether public defenders or court-appointed – also are allowed to spend more money than his office to hire private investigators, scientific experts and other consultants.
“There certainly are more resources available in the federal system,” said Ramseur, noting capital cases in federal court can spawn million-dollar defense bills.
“That is rare here,” he said, referring to Virginia state courts.
The sentencing phase in the pirate case is expected to last more than a week. Members of the victims’ families and investigators familiar with the defendants’ histories in Somalia will testify.
The jury can recommend the defendants receive either the death penalty or life in prison. Stephen Jones, who represented McVeigh during his trial in Oklahoma, declined to guess how the jury might vote. However, he surmised the pirates probably didn’t want to be tried in the Eastern District of Virginia. Virginians are generally conservative and supportive of the death penalty, he said.
Plus, this is a Navy town.
“It’s not a favorable venue for them,” he said.