Cook gets 36 years for stabbings
The judge could have ordered life in prison for the Chinese man
A Chinese cook aboard a foreign fishing vessel who fatally stabbed the captain and first mate was ordered yesterday to spend 36 years in federal prison.
Shi Lei, 25, could have faced life imprisonment, but Chief U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor said there were factors that weighed against her imposing the maximum penalty.
A federal jury found Shi guilty in November of three counts of violence against maritime navigation by taking control of the ship and interfering with safe navigation, resulting in the deaths of the only two crew members who knew how to navigate the ship.
Shi, at trial and yesterday, continued to maintain that he stabbed the men in self-defense and after being provoked.
"I am innocent," he told the court through a Chinese interpreter. "I am not guilty."
At trial he testified that the captain and first mate beat him and that the most recent beating came shortly after he told the captain he wanted to return home to China. He had been removed as cook earlier and reassigned to more physically demanding work as deckhand after crew members complained about his cooking.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Brady, who argued for life imprisonment, maintained that the evidence at trial showed Shi did not act on the spur of the moment, but "planned, deliberated and thought out" how to kill the men.
Gillmor said the jury found that Shi's conduct -- retrieving gloves and knives, then confronting the two men on the bridge and attacking them -- was a deliberate attempt to take control of the ship and be the one to determine where the ship was headed and what would happen to the lives on board.
A ship on the high seas is already subject to many perils -- from the weather to the ship malfunctioning, she said. By eliminating the only two who knew how to navigate the ship, operate the radio and provide medical care, he imperiled the crew even further, Gillmor said.
Gillmor noted she was "particularly struck" by the amount of terror and fear experienced by the other crew members who witnessed the attack, were ordered to throw the captain's body overboard and watched helplessly as the first mate died.
"Their life experience did not prepare them for the horror of watching two crew members killed before their eyes," she said. But she also considered his youth, the fact that he did not appear prepared to do the work required of him on the ship, and the angry response and beatings by the captain and first mate to his request to return home. The crew had been at sea for a whole year with little or no communication with their families back home.
Defense attorney Richard Pafundi said later that the 36 years imposed by the court was "generous" in light of the government's request for a life term. "She could have conceivably given him life without parole."
Shi plans to appeal and challenge the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts, an issue raised early on by Shi's former defense counsel and Pafundi.