NORFOLK, Va. — A Somali man charged with piracy and murder in the deaths of four Americans is ineligible for the death penalty because he’s mentally disabled, defense attorneys argued in federal court in Virginia on Tuesday.
Ahmed Muse Salad is one of three Somalis facing a number of charges that could bring the death penalty arising from the February 2011 hijacking of the yacht Quest.
The owners of the yacht, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were the first Americans to be killed in a wave of pirate attacks off the coast of east Africa that are designed to capture foreigners and then hold them ransom for millions of dollars.
In all, 22 of the 26 counts with which the defendants are charged are death-eligible offenses.
Defense documents say Salad has a low IQ, a poor memory and had difficulty functioning as a child in Somalia. Defense attorneys also noted in court filings that his co-defendants describe Salad as ‘slow’ and inept at fishing. Prosecutors say Salad is competent.
The U.S. Supreme Court has banned executing those with certain mental disabilities.
A judge is expected to issue a written ruling ahead of the June trial.
The decision to seek the death penalty was made by Attorney General Eric Holder. In a filing by federal prosecutors signaling their intent to seek the death penalty if the men are convicted, they noted that the men killed or attempted to kill more than one person during a single episode and endangered the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy was shadowing the Quest when shots rang out aboard the yacht and the Americans were killed “in an especially wanton and gratuitous manner,” prosecutors wrote.
Executions under federal law are extremely rare, with only a handful out of more than 1,300 executions since 1976 having been carried out by the federal government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty statistics and is opposed to the death penalty.
A ruling on the motion is expected as soon as this week.