Somali pirate sheds tears in NYC courtroom

James Cohen on ABC/NECN, April 22, 2009

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ABC's Linsey Davis reports.

He was all smiles when he arrived in New York, but inside the courtroom Abdiwali Muse cried.

The FBI said that he is an 18-year-old pirate, while his parents called him a child -- a 16-year-old coaxed by gangsters with money.

Initially the hearing was closed to the public out of concern that the alleged pirate was a juvenile, but, ultimately, the judge determined that he is an adult.

"Judge Peck may have found for today that he's of age of majority," defense attorney Deirdre von Dornum said. "But as you can tell he's extremely young, injured and terrified."

According to the FBI, Abduwali Muse is the sole surviving Somali pirate suspect from the recent attack on the ship Maersk Alabama that took captain Richard Phillips hostage.

But his mother has made a plea saying, "I would like to request from the U.S. government and President Obama to release my son. He has nothing to do with that crime. He is only a child."

The legal professor we spoke with said unless something comes up that we do not know about the defendant, this is an open and shut case.

"You just don't need any more than the witness on a ship and the captain to make out a case of piracy," professor James Cohen of Fordham University School of Law said.

The U.S. government hopes this case will send a strong message to other pirates.

"We will continue to keep a focus on U.S. interests, U.S. persons that you will
face the rule of law and the United States Constitution," FBI assistant director Michael Heimbach said.

His lawyers may try to portray him as victim, forced to act against his will.

"We need to look into the factual situation we don't have the information yet, but there certainly is the possibility that he himself was kidnapped and I know there are reports from his family on that but we haven't spoken to them," von Dornum said.

Muse faces five counts of criminal activity, including piracy. All but one of these charges carry maximum sentences of life in prison.