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Date published: 10/17/2012
NORFOLK--Federal prosecutors are objecting to defense attorneys' efforts to move a Somali piracy trial outside of Norfolk, a Navy town whose ships are frequently deployed to combat piracy off the coast of Africa.
Attorneys for five Somalis charged with piracy in a 2010 attack on the USS Ashland contend the men can't get a fair trial in Norfolk, which draws jurors from a region that includes the world's largest naval base, as well as other military installations.
Defense attorneys contend the region's heavy military presence and publicity about the case has prejudiced potential jurors.
"Simply put, the community in Norfolk has a very personal stake in piracy issues that prejudices the defendants," defense attorneys wrote in a filing asking for a change of venue. "There would be manifest prejudice if this trial is permitted to proceed in Norfolk."
The indictment says the men set out to sea to hijack a ship and hold its crew for ransom, firing shots from an AK-47 at what turned out to be the USS Ashland. During the attack, the U.S. Navy ship's 25 mm cannons destroyed a skiff, killing one Somali man and injuring several others. One of the crew members aboard the Somali boat, Jama Idle Ibrahim, has already pleaded guilty to related charges and could be asked to testify against his five countrymen. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
On Friday, prosecutors responded to the change of venue request by saying that simply having a connection to the military doesn't disqualify potential jurors.
"The test for Navy employees, like the test for all prospective jurors, is one of ability to judge the case based on the evidence and the court's instructions. Defendants rely on the mere fact of Navy association to impute bias, but they have no basis in the law for doing so," prosecutors wrote.
They also wrote that it is possible to find an impartial jury among 1.2 million residents in the Norfolk district, citing two recently completed piracy cases as an example.