Murder at sea
“The FBI is committed to addressing piracy and serious criminal acts of violence and is dedicated to working with its partners at every level to investigate and prosecute crimes on the high seas.”
—Salvador Hernandez, FBI Dep. Asst. Dir.
“Due to the international and jurisdictional aspects involved with this incident, we are still working on obtaining facts and specific details.”
—Dave Couvertier, FBI Special Agent
When the Carnival Dream launched on Sept. 21, 2009, she instantly became the largest cruise ship in the entire Carnival fleet. Technically registered as a Panamanian ship, she is reported to have more singers, dancers, comedians and other entertainers than any other Carnival cruise ship. When fully loaded, she can carry more than 4,600 passengers and nearly 1,500 crew members.
But what happens if the number of passengers both increases and decreases while the ship is at sea? What happens if the decrease is the result of a homicide? And what happens if the ship is in international waters when that homicide occurs?
Each of those events occurred on a voyage of the Carnival Dream in October 2011. Having departed from the United States, the Dream, flying under the Panamanian flag, was in international waters on its way to the Dutch side of the island of St. Maarten when its passenger manifest increased and decreased by one within a matter of hours. That’s because an American passenger, a 20-year-old from Indiana, gave birth mid-cruise.
Though she told law Dutch law enforcement officers that she was unaware that she was nine months pregnant when she boarded the cruise ship with a friend several days prior, her actions ran counter to her words. She gave birth to the child in her cabin and then either killed the infant or left it to die while she and the friend went back out onto the deck to enjoy their cruise. She did not seek medical help for the child and did not report the birth. The body of the infant was discovered by a crew member.
Because the next port was St. Maarten, Dutch officers investigated the crime. Where, though, was the mother to be prosecuted? She was an American citizen, and thus the child was as well. The boat was Panamanian. The port was Dutch. The ship had sailed from an American port. The scene was international.
Last week, Case Study looked at issues of extradition when a crime is committed in one state and the defendant is arrested in another. But international and maritime crimes are significantly different. The prosecution of such crimes is handled under a concept known as Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction. In the U.S. this is governed by Title 18, Section 7 of the United States Code.
The code provides that the federal government may prosecute crimes committed in international waters if the ship is owned by an American company (regardless of what flag it flies under) and if the victim is a U.S. citizen and the ship is going to or coming from a U.S. port. The United States also has jurisdiction if the ship is off the coast but in U.S. waters.
In the Carnival Dream case, the ship had departed from an American port. The victim, by nature of the mother’s nationality, was a U.S. citizen. The crime occurred in international waters. Carnival Cruise Lines is headquartered in Doral, Fla., and is an American company, making the Panamanian flag a moot point. Jurisdiction for prosecution of the crime therefore falls to the federal government of the United States. If the ship had been in Dutch waters, then the authorities in St. Maarten would have prosecuted the offense.
Indeed, Dutch authorities conducted the initial investigation and performed the autopsy on the infant before turning the investigation over to agents from the F.B.I. who had flown to St. Maarten. Those agents conducted interviews and further investigated the ship after it returned to the U.S.
Special Maritime Jurisdiction applies to aircraft flying over the high seas in the same manner that it applies to boats floating on them. Of course aircraft can move from one jurisdiction to another with much greater speed than a cruise ship, posing additional challenges for the determination of jurisdiction. The last update from the FBI on the Carnival Dream case came in early 2012, reporting that the case had been moved to an FBI office in Indiana and the investigation was ongoing.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.