Decided: August 13, 2015
In this piracy case, the Fourth Circuit rejected the defendants’ objections to the district court’s failure to dismiss piracy charges, jury instructions on piracy, and sufficiency of evidence on piracy and other charges. The Fourth Circuit found merit in the Government’s appeal of the district court’s finding that the statutorily mandated life sentences for piracy violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. On this basis, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s Eighth Amendment Order, vacated defendants’ sentences, and remanded for resentencing.
In early 2010, seven Somalis including Said piloted a boat into the Gulf of Aden for the purpose of seizing a merchant ship. Their plan was foiled when they were stopped by a British warship, the HMS Chatham, and ultimately sent home. In April, 2010, another group of seven Somalis including Said and three of his earlier accomplices took a boat into the Gulf of Aden. Incorrectly thinking that it was a merchant ship, the Somalis attacked a United States Navy warship, the USS Ashland. During the attack and resulting response from the Ashland, several of the Somalis sustained injury, one Somali died, and the Somali boat was destroyed. There was little to no damage to the Ashland and her crew. The crew of the Ashland apprehended the Somalis.
In April, 2010, a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia indicted the six remaining Somalis (the six). In July of that same year, the grand jury, in a superseding indictment based only on the Ashland incident, indicted the six for various crimes, including piracy under 18 U.S.C. § 1651. In July, the six moved to dismiss the piracy charge on the basis that piracy required robbery at sea, and because they had not seized the Ashland, they could not be guilty of robbery at sea. The district court granted their motion, and dismissed the piracy charge. In August, one of the six agreed to assist the government in the prosecution of the remaining five Somalis (the five), and subsequently pled guilty to three non-piracy charges. The government appealed the district court’s dismissal of the piracy charges. Following the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States v. Dire, which found that the definition of piracy did not require robbery on the high seas, the Fourth Circuit in May, 2012, vacated the dismissal of the piracy charges, and remanded for further proceedings.
In August, 2012, the grand jury indicted the five in a second superseding indictment on piracy and related charges which incorporated both the Chatham and Ashland incidents. The five again moved to dismiss the piracy charges, and the district court rejected the motion based on Dire. At trial, the five moved unsuccessfully for acquittal of charges, and objected unsuccessfully to jury instructions based on Dire. In February, 2013, the five were convicted on all counts. They again moved unsuccessfully for acquittal. Before sentencing, the five moved to invalidate the mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 1651 as constituting cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Applying the two prong test from Graham v. Florida for as-applied non-capital punishment, the district court first found that the there was a gross disproportion between the crime here and the life sentence, because the five had in effect committed only attempted piracy. Under the second prong of the test, the court found the life sentence disproportionate in relation to other crimes requiring mandatory life sentence which nearly all involve the death of another, and in relation to global sentences for piracy, which average 14 years. On the basis of this analysis, the district court found the mandatory life sentences for piracy cruel and unusual, and sentenced the five to from 360 to 500 months imprisonment, of which 140 to 264 months were for piracy. The government appealed the district court’s decision not to impose the mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 1651. The five cross-appealed the court’s failure to dismiss the piracy charge, jury instructions on piracy, and sufficiency of evidence supporting their convictions.
The Fourth Circuit first analyzed the five’s objections. The Court held that the district court did not err in declining to dismiss piracy charges, nor in instructing the jury on piracy. The Court based this finding on Dire’s holding that piracy did not require robbery on the seas, which the five conceded the district court had to, and did, follow. The Fourth Circuit then held, based on Dire and the trial evidence, that there was sufficient evidence to prove a case against the five on piracy. The Court also held, based on the trial evidence, that there was sufficient evidence against four of the five of conspiracy, intent to perform an act of violence against an individual on a ship, and consequently against two of the five on related firearms charges.
The Fourth Circuit next analyzed the government’s objection to the finding that the statutorily mandated life sentences for piracy violated the Eighth Amendment. Using the Graham v. Florida test, the Fourth Circuit found that the first prong was not met, because it is hard to meet the grossly disproportionate standard for non-capital sentences, and Congress had rationally decided that piracy should be harshly punished. Because the first prong of the test was not met, the Fourth Circuit did not analyze the second prong.
On this basis, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction of the five, reversed the district court’s holding in regards to the Eighth Amendment, vacated the sentences of the five, and remanded for resentencing. Judge Davis wrote a separate concurring opinion to note that not all piracy offenses are alike. Though he found the Fourth Circuit’s holding correct under the current law, he noted that Congress could allow federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of piracy, so that the sentences would more accurately reflect the actual crimes committed.
Katherine H. Flynn