Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base and its ships regularly deploy to the coast of Africa to fight piracy. The Norfolk-based USS Enterprise was among the ships that responded to the 2011 hijacking of the yacht Quest, where all four Americans on board were shot and killed off the coast of Somalia.
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 ransom them for millions of dollars.
Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar are charged with murder in the case. Four of the hijackers died on board. Twelve other men connected to the case have already either pleaded guilty or been convicted in a Norfolk courtroom of piracy and sentenced to life in prison.
Defense attorneys for the men prosecutors say shot the Americans had argued in a court filing that extensive local media coverage of piracy cases coupled with the area's innate interest in the issue because of its Navy presence would result in a prejudicial jury.
"Simply put, the community in Norfolk has a very personal stake in piracy issues that prejudices the defendants. These prejudices will become that much more exaggerated in the event that defense counsel contends that the deaths occurred in this case partly because the Navy failed to follow proper protocol," their court filing states.
In another filing, defense attorneys have written that the Navy's aggressive actions helped lead to the shootings. After negotiations between the Navy and the pirates broke down, the destroyer USS Sterett began maneuvering between the Quest and the Somali coast. The pirates then fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the warship, and soon after, shots were fired on board the Quest, fatally wounding the Americans.
"There would be manifest prejudice if this trial is permitted to proceed in Norfolk," defense attorneys wrote.
But in her ruling last week, Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith wrote that an immediate transfer of venue isn't justified. Among other things, Smith noted that defense attorneys didn't identify any instances of sensational or non-factual reporting in the case. She also wrote that the upcoming release of a movie starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a merchant ship who was taken hostage by Somali pirates and filmed in Virginia wasn't a compelling argument to change the venue. Defense attorneys had argued the film is particularly relevant because it features Navy SEALs, who are based in neighboring Virginia Beach.
"The Defendants' arguments are unpersuasive. Even if the movie does have the potential to create prejudice, a point which the government does not concede, and the court does not assume to be true, it would presumably create prejudice in any market where it is released," Smith wrote.
Smith wrote that attorneys will have ample opportunity to screen potential jurors for prejudice during jury selection.
If convicted, prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty. Smith also denied a motion to block that potential sentence.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis