RICHMOND, Va. – The first piracy conviction in a U.S. courtroom in nearly 200 years was going before an appeals court Tuesday as five Somali men who launched an attack on a Navy warship off the coast of Africa sought to reverse a jury’s verdict.
Attorneys for the five planned to argue before a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the men’s actions fell short of the legal standard for piracy.
“Defendants did not commit robbery at sea, and their convictions for piracy cannot stand,” attorneys for the men wrote in a filing before Tuesday’s arguments.
The government is expected to counter that their actions constitute piracy under widely accepted international law. They will also oppose defence claims that the five were not properly advised of their right to an attorney and that one of the defendants was a minor.
The five were convicted of piracy last November for the April 1, 2010, attack on the USS Nicholas, a Virginia-based frigate that was patrolling the pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean. The Nicholas defendants are among several piracy prosecutions the government has brought to the federal court in Norfolk.
During trial, defence attorneys had argued the men were innocent fishermen who had been abducted by pirates and forced to fire their weapons at the ship.
But prosecutors said the five had confessed to attacking the Nicholas after mistaking it for a merchant ship.
The government said three of the men were in a skiff that opened fire on the Nicholas with assault rifles, then fled when sailors returned fire with machine-guns. All the men later confessed to the attack to an interpreter aboard the Nicholas. They expected to make anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 from the ransom.
The last U.S. conviction for piracy was in 1819, and involved a foreign vessel. U.S. piracy law was based on that case.
Besides piracy, the five were convicted of plundering, weapons, assault, explosives and conspiracy charges. They were also armed with a rocket-propelled grenade.