Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let the Trial Begin!

So the surviving pirate from the Maersk Alabama drama was captured and taken into custody after U.S. Navy Seal sniper teams killed his cohorts. His trial, as I'm sure you've heard on the news, is bound to be interesting, as prosecutors want to try the 15-year-old (if you believe his father; 18 if you believe the FBI) Somali as an adult with life in prison as the harshest penalty.

This may not be the trial of the century, but it's been a long time since pirates went before the court in these here United States. When was the last time?

Well, according to the US Naval Institute blog, that would be 1861, when the Savannah, out of Charleston, SC, made the huge error of mistaking the brig USS Perry for a merchant vessel. The Savannah was captured and the crew put on trial. Ultimately the whole case hinged on whether or not the ship and her crew were pirates or privateers. A privateer receives permission (a Letter of Marque) to raid shipping and confiscate goods from a sovereign nation, while pirates do the same thing without any nation's approval. Did the Confederate States of America have the right to send out privateers, or were these sailors simply pirates? The jury couldn't decide, so a mistrial was declared. Of course, the issue would become moot in a couple of years, when the Civil War decided this and other issues once and for all.

There's a really neat article on the Savannah in an 1861 issue of Harper's Weekly, which can be seen here. The link goes to a picture of the Savannah. Once there, click the link under the drawing to get to the article.

148 years later, and we're back to the same problem. This is going to be a very interesting trial.

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