The three entered their pleas in U.S. District Court to 26 counts, 22 of which are death penalty eligible. The government has not decided whether to seek death, but is examining the possibility.
Through an interpreter, Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar pleaded not guilty to murder, piracy, hostage taking and violence against maritime navigation resulting in death, among other charges.
The defendants are among 14 men who were charged with piracy and other counts in the hijacking of the yacht Quest in February. The other men have already entered guilty pleas and agreed to cooperate with authorities.
The owners of the Quest, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., along with friends Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay of Seattle, were shot to death several days after being taken hostage several hundred miles south of Oman.
They were the first U.S. citizens killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years, despite an international flotilla of warships that patrol the area.
U.S. Magistrate Judge F. Bradford Stillman warned the three defendants of the severity of the charges they faced.
"If you are convicted, you could be sentenced to the penitentiary for life, or you could be sentenced to death and executed," Stillman told the defendants, who wore faded black-and-gray prison uniforms. They entered court in shackles.
Each defendant, when asked through an interpreter, firmly denied the charges. Each also requested a jury trial.
"This is not something that I have done, so this is not something I will plead guilty to," Ahmed Muse Salad, 43, said through an interpreter.
"This is not a crime that I committed," Abrar, 29, said. "I have never killed anybody."
"The allegations are not something that I did," Beyle, 22, said.
Attorneys for Salad said after the hearing they expect a long, complex path to trial. The defendants speak no English, attorneys face national security clearance issues and the men's home country is a dangerous and lawless place.
"Somalia is a place we have been advised as westerners we should not really be entering," Paul G. Gill, a federal public defender, said outside of the courthouse. "It's going to be a great battle just to even identify witnesses who know anything about the clients' past that are in a place we can get access to."
The defendants, who have little or no education, also present a challenge, Gill said.
"They are from a totally different culture that is nothing like Western culture and American culture in particular," Gill said. "We all grew up watching 'Law and Order' or whatever and even if we're lay people we have some fundamental understanding of how things work. It's all news to them."
During two separate hearings before different judges, attorneys laid out various issues that will push the Quest trial into 2012. Stillman waived federal speedy trial guidelines.
One reason is the government's decision to examine the possibility of seeking "a sentence of death with respect to any or all of the defendants," according to a government motion. The process typically takes 90 days.
The ultimate decision rests with Attorney General Eric Holder.
"Obviously it's within their discretion and we're just going to have to see what they do," said Larry M. Dash, also representing Salad.
Court records say the pirates intended to bring the Americans back to Somalia, where they could be held for ransom. That plan fell apart when four U.S. warships began shadowing the Quest.
The Navy had told the pirates that they could keep the yacht in exchange for the hostages, but they refused to take the deal because they didn't believe they would get enough money. Ransoms are typically made for millions of dollars.
Abrar fired a shot above Scott Adam's head and told him to tell the Navy that if they came any closer, the Americans would be killed, according to court records. Soon after, a rocket propelled grenade was fired by one of the convicted pirates at the USS Sterett,, where two other pirates were on board conducting the negotiations.
The Americans were being held in the yacht's steering wheel house by seven men when gunfire directed at the Americans erupted, according to court records. Other pirates have said they tried to stop the shooting once it started.
In all, 19 men boarded the American boat. Four of them died on board — including two who have also been identified in court records as those who shot at the Americans. One person was released by authorities because he is a juvenile.