Prosecution seeks death penalty for Felony Murder

Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar entered their pleas to murder and other charges in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, July 20, 2011. (Credit: AP)

It was recently announced that federal prosecutors in the U.S. intend to seek the death penalty against three Somalis if they are convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of four Americans which occurred aboard a hijacked yacht during a failed rescue attempt last year. Of the other Somalis implicated in the incident: one was released by authorities because he is a juvenile; eleven have pleaded guilty to piracy and been sentenced to life in prison; and the ransom negotiator’s piracy conviction is on appeal.  Furthermore, the AP reports that four of the hijackers died on board, including two who have been identified in court records as those who shot at the Americans. This last assertion is based on the charging documents before a judge or jury has established the actual facts of the case. But, if these facts are borne out at trial, the three Somalis who remain to be prosecuted, and for whom the Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty did not commit premeditated murder.

Somali pirates do not take hostages with the intent of killing them; that is bad for business. They intend to hold the hostages for ransom. Of course, the pirates who pointed guns at the American hostages and killed them evidently changed their plans upon the imminent boarding of the yacht by U.S. Navy SEALS (and were killed themselves). But it is not clear that that those charged in this last case intended to kill the hostages. Some of them claim to have attempted to stop the killings. This is supported in part by the Prosecutor’s charging documents which indicate the deaths occurred in the commission or immediate flight from the offenses of kidnapping, hostage taking and violence against maritime navigation. Therefore, the basis for seeking the death penalty on the murder charges in this case appears to be the felony murder rule, whereby a killing that occurs in the course of a dangerous felony, even an accidental death, can be charged as first-degree murder. If the three pirates at issue here were fleeing the scene when two other pirates killed the hostages, is the death penalty a just sentence?

This issue is further highlighted by a discrepancy in the way the US Attorney is charging the eleven pirates who pleaded guilty and the three for whom the death penalty is sought.  By accepting pleas for life imprisonment for the former, the US Attorney has indicated that the death penalty is not forcibly necessary to serve the interests of justice in this case. It may be that there are facts that support a harsher sentence for the latter three. It may also be that the three refused to enter a plea agreement, so the US Attorney is wielding a stiffer penalty as leverage. But the question remains, is the death penalty an appropriate penalty for felony murder?

One final incongruity is the fact that the Prosecutor is not seeking the death penalty on the charge of piracy. From 1790, the crime of piracy pursuant to U.S. statutory law imposed a mandatory death penalty. The death penalty was replaced by “imprisonment at hard labor for life” in 1897, and then “imprisonment for life” in 1909. Therefore, the death penalty is no longer available for the crime of piracy under 18 U.S.C. 1651. The fact that Congress amended the statute to eliminate the death penalty indicates Congress’ view that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for piracy. If the principle crime at issue here is piracy, and Congress intended that no person be put to death for the crime of piracy, should that penalty still be available if the crime is charged as hostage taking or violence against maritime navigation resulting in death? Of course, a jury will have to decide whether the aggravating factors have been proven to justify a sentence of death.  But I really am curious as to what you all think on these issues.

One Response to Prosecution seeks death penalty for Felony Murder

  1. Natacha says:

    You raise some interesting questions here. I don’t believe death penalty is ever just, appropriate or justified. Even more so when there is room for different interpretations of the facts, as seems to be the case here, and when intent cannot be clearly established. The risk of putting someone to death by mistake is not worth the penalty’s deterring effect.

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