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Sentencing hearing begins for 3 Somali pirates

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- A sentencing hearing for three Somali pirates who could face the death penalty got underway in Virginia on Monday.

Earlier this month, Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar were convicted in the 2011 shooting deaths of four Americans off the coast of Africa.

The yacht's owners, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends, Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were killed several days after they were taken hostage at sea. A jury found the Somalis guilty of all 26 charges, including piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence. In all, 22 counts that they were convicted of are eligible for the death penalty.

The sentencing phase of the trial is expected to last up to two weeks.

The decision to seek the death penalty was made by Attorney General Eric Holder. Executions under federal law are extremely rare, with only a handful out of more than 1,300 executions since 1976 having been carried out by the federal government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty statistics and is opposed to the death penalty.

Eleven other defendants who were aboard the Quest have already pleaded guilty to piracy and have been sentenced to life in prison. During the murder trial, defense attorneys said jurors should question their testimony because they agreed to do so in exchange for the possibility of receiving a reduced sentence.

Four other suspected pirates were killed aboard the yacht. A fifth suspected pirate was released because he was a juvenile. Another man who prosecutors say was a land-based negotiator and the highest-ranking pirate they've ever captured has also been convicted of piracy and sentenced to a dozen life sentences in prison.