Prosecutors had sought the death penalty, and 22 of the 26 crimes they were convicted of were death-eligible offenses. But a federal jury in Norfolk, Va., recommended the only other possible sentence for 20-year-old Ahmed Muse Salad, 25-year-old Abukar Osman Beyle and 29-year-old Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, defense attorneys attempted to raise doubts about the certainty of the crimes the jury had convicted them of. Salad attorney Claire Cardwell noted that nobody was able to definitively say which person shot which victim, and that much of the evidence presented relied on testimony of other convicted pirates. If the jury and the government wanted to dole out justice by taking an eye for an eye, "Which eye, for which eye?" she asked.
Formal sentencing for the men will take place in October and November, and they will face numerous life sentences and additional time.
The three men were among 19 who boarded the Quest in February 2011 several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia in hopes of taking the Americans back to Somalia and ransoming them for millions of dollars. The plan fell apart when the U.S. Navy began shadowing the sailing vessel.
The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death a few days after negotiations with the Navy broke down.
"Scott Adam, Jean Adam, Phyllis Macay, and Robert Riggle lost their lives and their families lost their loved ones. Nothing can make this right; nothing can make their families whole again - but we hope today's verdict and sentences will bring some closure to their nightmare that began two years ago on the Indian Ocean," U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said in a statement.
The Navy had told the pirates that they could keep the yacht and a small Navy boat in exchange for the hostages, but they refused to take the deal because they didn't believe they would get enough money. The only person authorized to negotiate the Americans' release was also based in Somalia.
With the yacht nearing the Somali coastline, the destroyer USS Sterett began maneuvering between the Quest and the Somali shore when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it. Soon after, gunshots were fired on board the Quest. Prosecutors said the murders were planned, as evidenced by threats from the pirates to the Navy, but Cardwell said that made no sense for them to kill their hostages. By the time Navy SEALs scrambled aboard, all four Americans had been mortally wounded. Prosecutors said the Americans had been shot 41 times.
"Let's call it what it is. It was a massacre," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph DePadilla told jurors while arguing for the death penalty during closing arguments earlier this week.
The victims were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in recent years. In their justification for seeking the death penalty, prosecutors wrote that the men killed or attempted to kill more than one person during a single episode. They also said their actions endangered the U.S. military and that the Americans were killed "in an especially wanton and gratuitous manner."
In the case of Salad, prosecutors said he has demonstrated a lack of remorse in the Americans' deaths and made boastful statements about them.
Defense attorneys for Salad had argued he should not be eligible for the death penalty because they claimed he is mentally handicapped. 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.
The U.S. Supreme Court has banned executing those with certain mental disabilities.
Prosecutors argued Salad is competent, and Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith issued an order that concurred with that assessment.
The decision to seek the death penalty was made by Attorney General Eric Holder. Executions under federal law are extremely rare. 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 statistics.
Eleven other defendants who were aboard the Quest have already pleaded guilty to piracy and have been sentenced to life in prison.
Four other suspected pirates were killed aboard the yacht. A fifth suspected pirate was released because he was a juvenile. Another man who prosecutors say was a land-based negotiator and the highest-ranking pirate they've ever captured has also been convicted of piracy and sentenced to a dozen life sentences in prison.
Michael Scharf is a Case Western Reserve University international law professor who has provided training for prosecutors in other piracy cases around the world. He noted that this case was different because most pirates convicted in other countries receive relatively light sentences.
"To the Somalians, who live in miserable conditions, a short sentence in a foreign jail, where they receive three meals a day, exercise, and educational training, isn't much of a deterrent," Scharf said in an email. "So the U.S. sought the ultimate punishment, not just because U.S citizens happened to be the victims, but to send the strongest possible signal. That the jury returned a life sentence instead may blunt that somewhat."