* Same laws under which Blackbeard’s crew was tried
* Virginia has long navy and pirate hunting tradition
* Newly indicted Somali pirates could face death penalty
By Matthew A. Ward
CHESAPEAKE, Va, July 12 (Reuters) - Virginia, which had last tried a pirate in 1819 and prosecuted Blackbeard’s crew 300 years ago, has become the U.S. center for trying Somali pirates captured by the U.S. Navy off the Horn of Africa.
“We’re now up to the 26th pirate charged in the Eastern District of Virginia,” U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride told Reuters in an interview.
Three accused Somali pirates were indicted in Norfolk last week on murder, kidnapping and hostage-taking charges connected to the two American couples slain in February after their yacht was hijacked off the coast of east Africa.
The charges are the latest in a recent spate of pirate prosecutions in Norfolk’s federal court.
Experts say Virginia is strengthening its long-held reputation for pirate hunting under laws that are virtually unchanged since the crew of the notorious Englishman, Blackbeard, was tried in Williamsburg almost 300 years ago.
“We are expanding ... beyond the crime we find in our district,” MacBride said. “We are now bringing extraterritorial, transnational prosecutions.”
The trio of newly indicted Somalis are set to be arraigned on July 20 and could face the death penalty if convicted. They were among 14 men brought to the United States and charged by MacBride’s office in March with piracy, conspiracy and other offenses. The other 11 defendants have pleaded guilty.
In March, a federal judge in Norfolk handed down sentences of life plus 80 years in prison to five Somali pirates for last year’s attack on the USS Nicholas west of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean.
An attack on another Hampton Roads-based ship, the USS Ashland, in April 2010 in the Gulf of Aden, drew a 30-year prison sentence for Somali pirate Jama Idle Ibrahim.
MacBride said research by his office showed that, prior to the USS Nicholas attackers’ trial, the last pirate trial in Norfolk was for Thomas Smith, an American who attacked a Spanish vessel in 1819.
Though the recent incidents occurred far from eastern Virginia, MacBride said it makes sense to prosecute them there because the area has the world’s largest metropolitan concentration of military installations and the U.S. Navy was victimized in the attacks.
The modern prosecutions follow essentially the same laws used to convict the nine members of Blackbeard’s crew who were captured in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1718 by a naval force dispatched by colonial governor Alexander Spotswood.
“There is little legal difference between classical and modern piracy,” said Northwestern University School of Law associate professor Eugene Kontorovich, a piracy law expert. “The law has been amazingly quite stable in this area.”
University of California history professor Mark G. Hanna tracked the rise of piracy in Newport, Rhode Island and Charles Town, South Carolina in the 17th and 18th centuries for his dissertation at Harvard University.
He said Virginians went after pirates when many colonies harbored them. People in Virginia feared that the slaves they used to produce tobacco could be stirred into rebellion by “the presence of disenfranchised men looking to build crews,” Hanna said.
“Virginia was a pirate-hunting community because they produced a staple commodity early on with slave labor,” he said.
The U.S. Navy and the FBI negotiated with the pirates to try to secure the release of the American hostages, who were killed before they could be rescued.
Kontorovich was “quite sure” the modern breed of pirate would never be romanticized like the swashbucklers of yore.
“People understand the difference between the fantasy and true crime genres,” he said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sandra Maler