One juror. That was all that stood between a Somali pirate and the death penalty, according to three members of the U.S. District Court jury that decided his fate Friday.
Eleven jurors believed Ahmed Muse Salad, 25, deserved to be executed for his role in the 2011 hijacking of a sailboat off the coast of Africa that left four Americans dead:
for opening fire on the hostages with a machine gun and then returning to shoot the ship's captain again after he survived the initial melee. One did not. The decision had to be unanimous.
"In my opinion, the law is written very badly," juror Jonathan Simmons said as he left the federal courthouse. "One person shouldn't get to decide."
It took about 8-1/2 hours of deliberation for the jury to reach its decision on Salad and his co-defendants, Abukar Osman Beyle, 20, and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar, 29.
They recommended the men, all convicted of shooting the hostages, be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Judge Rebecca Beach Smith will formally sentence Salad and Abrar on Oct. 25 and Beyle on Nov. 8.
Simmons said the jury was split about 10-2 in favor of sentencing Beyle and Abrar to death. Wearing dark suits and dress shirts without ties, each defendant showed little reaction when he learned his individual fate. Outside the presence of the jury, however, they hugged their lawyers, gave thumbs-ups to defense investigators and spoke with their translators. "What everyone should be thinking about today is the victims' families," said Lawrence Woodward Jr., echoing a sentiment shared by several of the other seven defense attorneys. Reached by phone in California, the sister of one victim lamented that the jury did not sentence the three men to death.
"I don't know how they can shoot someone with an AK-47 and not get the death penalty," Cynthia Macay said through tears.
"They almost will have a better life in prison than in Somalia." U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride stressed the severity of a life sentence while acknowledging no punishment would make the victims' families "whole again." "... (B)ut we hope today's verdict and sentences will bring some closure to their nightmare that began two years ago on the Indian Ocean," he said in a statement.
Salad, Beyle and Abrar were convicted July 8 of 26 crimes - 22 of which were punishable by death. The charges stemmed from the Feb. 22, 2011, shootings on a yacht named Quest after negotiations broke down between the pirates and Navy officials.
The victims were Scott and Jean Adam, a California couple who owned the boat, and Phyllis Patricia Macay and Robert Riggle, both of Seattle, who had joined them on the voyage. Prosecutors said one pirate fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the American guided missile destroyer Sterett.
Shortly thereafter, Salad, Beyle and Abrar opened fire on the hostages. Defense attorneys portrayed their clients as poor men who grew up in a war-torn country that lacked many of the opportunities of the United States.
Prosecutors countered that being poor is no reason to "massacre" innocent Americans. Several members of the victims' families testified about the impact the deaths have had on their lives. The jurors interviewed didn't identify the death-penalty holdout.
"We weighed all the evidence the best we could," said Bobby Boddie, another juror. Eleven of the Somali men who were captured on the hijacked yacht previously pleaded guilty to their involvement. All received life sentences. The death penalty is rarely imposed in federal court.
In the past 25 years - since the federal government reinstated the death penalty and added dozens of death-penalty-eligible crimes to the books - prosecutors have tried 282 defendants on such charges. Juries handed down 73 death sentences and 144 life sentences. Only three of those condemned have been executed.
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