One of 11 Somali nationals accused of attacking U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Africa is seeking to have his trial moved out of Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base.
An attorney for Mohammed Jamah filed the request for a change of venue on last week in U.S. District Court. The motion contends a trial within miles of Naval Station Norfolk “precludes the selection of a fair and impartial jury.”
“Enthusiastic, pro-Navy, and for that matter pro-armed forces sentiment is a dominant value in this community and has been for decades,” wrote Robert B. Rigney, who represents the defendant.
Jamah is among six Somali men accused in April 10 attack on the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland about 380 miles of Djibouti, a small nation facing Yemen across the mouth of the Red Sea.
The other five defendants were captured March 31, after the frigate USS Nicholas exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel west of the Seychelles.
Both ships are based in the Norfolk area.
The six accused in the Ashland attack are scheduled to be tried in Norfolk on Oct. 19. The trial of the accused Nicholas pirates is scheduled to begin Sept. 8, also in Norfolk.
All 11 defendants face life terms if convicted on the piracy charge.
In a separate filing, an attorney for another of the accused pirates asked that several charges be dismissed for lack of evidence, and said the men were not involved in an act of piracy but ferrying refugees from Somalia to Yemen.
The motion was filed by Trey R. Kelleter on behalf of Abdirasaq Abshir.
In arguing his motion, Rigney said Norfolk’s “overwhelming ties to the Navy” extends to the civilian maritime industry, as well. He cited the “hero’s welcome” the city extended to Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain who spent five days as a hostage of Somali pirates.
The New Englander was rescued by a Navy ship homeported in Norfolk, and his ship was also based in the Virginia seaport.
“It is rare to find a member of the local populace that does not have some connection to the Navy or civilian shipping industry,” Rigney wrote. He said those ties makes the piracy case “highly provocative and threatening to many potential jurors …”
It was not clear if the motion for a change of venue would apply to all the Ashland defendants.
Each defendant is charged with piracy, attacks to plunder a vessel, assault with a dangerous weapon, and other weapons counts. They have each pleaded innocent.