NORFOLK, Va. Nov. 9, 2010— -- For the first time since tales of swashbuckling villains first hit the popular consciousness in adventure novels, American jurors will weigh charges of "piracy under the law of nations" in a case of five Somali men accused of firing on a US warship.
It's one of the oldest laws on the books, dating back to the early part of the 19th Century, when congress first recognized the power of American courts to punish those who would plunder ships in international waters if the pirates are brought to the United States.
It also happens to be one of the most serious crimes in the US Code, carrying a mandatory life prison sentence upon conviction.
While other alleged pirates from Somalia have recently been brought into US courts, experts say the trial that begins with jury selection in Norfolk, Va. Tuesday marks the first time in at least 100 years, and perhaps since the earliest days of the Civil War, that American jurors will hear a case in which the defendants are charged with piracy, specifically, rather than lesser or related counts.
Though the Somali men are accused of violating 11 separate laws altogether, including a series of weapons and explosives charges, a guilty verdict on the single piracy count alone would result in a term of life behind bars.
Federal prosecutors say the Somalis thought they were attacking a merchant ship when they aimed their assault rifles at a US Navy frigate as it patrolled the Indian Ocean in the dead of night on April 1.
The sailors on board the USS Nicholas, which had been on patrol for pirates, fired back and captured the five men, bringing them to the frigate's home port of Norfolk, the world's largest naval base.
David Bouchard, a defense attorney for the Somalis, says the piracy statute should not apply in this case, since the men never got anywhere close to the Navy ship.
"I think [bringing the piracy charge is] the most absurd thing I've seen the federal government do," Bouchard told ABC News. "I find it incomprehensible."