Are the High Seas a Criminal Paradise?

iStock / kreinick
iStock / kreinick

Over the last few weeks, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has applied for political asylum in some two dozen countries. Some nations turned him down for what he says were political reasons and others declined based on technicalities, but at least a few have granted him an invitation. Couldn’t a fugitive like that just kiss all us landlubbers goodbye, though, and live as a free man in international waters instead?

Not unless he’s a cartoon supervillain. Despite what spy novels and action movies would have us believe, international waters (aka trans-boundary waters or the high seas) are not a lawless free-for-all where The Man can’t hassle you over your monkey knife fights. They’re freer than countries’ territorial waters in the sense that no country can claim sovereignty over them, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but that doesn’t mean that countries can’t apply their laws or jurisdiction to events or people out there.

The Law of the Sea

Under UNCLOS, “every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag.” So a fugitive in a ship is still subject to the laws and regulations of whatever country the vessel is registered to.

The United States can also assert jurisdiction in international waters in certain situations by other means. The U.S. Code allows the federal government to exercise “Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction” over…

…any island, rock, or key containing deposits of guano, which may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

…any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States.

…to the extent permitted by international law, any foreign vessel during a voyage having a scheduled departure from or arrival in the United States with respect to an offense committed by or against a national of the United States.

International law also generally recognizes a country’s assertion to jurisdiction outside its territory if…

…the offense occurs in one country but has effects on another.

…the offender is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense threatens the vital interests of the prosecuting state.

…the victim is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense is universally condemned by the international community (piracy, slave trafficking or terrorism, for examples).

When the President can decide that whatever bat poop–covered rock your hideout is on belongs to the U.S. and then send the law after you, the high seas don’t seem like such a safe bet anymore. Of course, if a fugitive is on a boat flying a foreign flag in international waters, the U.S. might be less likely to violate the jurisdiction of that country to avoid a diplomatic mess. But that’s still not a guarantee for a fugitive’s freedom. The U.S. has a long history of “extraordinary or irregular,” the capture and transfer of criminal fugitives or suspects outside of normal means, and sometimes in violation of international law and foreign sovereignty. If the FBI or CIA will slip into another country to nab someone, they’ll probably get over any qualms they have about storming a foreign boat to do the same.

DNA Links Polish Barber Aaron Kosminski to Jack the Ripper Murders, But Experts Are Skeptical

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Many people have been suspected of being Jack the Ripper, from author Lewis Carroll to Liverpool cotton salesman James Maybrick, but the perpetrator of the grisly crimes that gripped Victorian London has never been identified. Now, one of the case's first suspects is back in the news. As Smithsonian reports, Aaron Kosminski, a barber from Poland, has been linked to the Jack the Ripper murders with DNA evidence—but experts are hesitant to call the case closed.

The new claim comes from data now published in the Journal of Forensic Science. Several years ago, Ripperologist Russell Edwards asked researchers from the University of Leeds and John Moores University in Liverpool to analyze a blood-stained silk shawl thought to have belonged to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The item, which Edwards owns, has been a primary piece of evidence in the murder investigation for years. In 2014, Edwards published a book in which he claimed Aaron Kosminski's DNA had been found on the garment, but his results weren't published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Five years later, the researchers have released their findings. Using infrared and spectrophotometry technology, they confirmed the fabric was stained with blood and discovered a possible semen stain. They collected DNA fragments from the stain and compared them to DNA taken from a descendent of Eddowes and a descendent of Kosminski. The mitochondrial DNA (the DNA passed down from mother to offspring) extracted from the shawl contained matching profiles for both subjects.

Kosminski was a 23-year-old Polish barber living in London at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. He was one of the first suspects identified by the London police, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict him in 1888.

Following the newest study, many Jack the Ripper experts are saying there still isn't enough evidence to definitively pin the murders on Kosminski. One of the main issues is that a mitochondrial DNA match isn't as conclusive as matches with other DNA; many people have the same mitochondrial DNA profile, even if they're not related, so the forensic tool is best used for ruling out suspects rather than confirming them.

The shawl at the center of the study is also controversial. It was supposedly picked up by a police officer at the scene of Eddowes's murder, but that version of the story has been disputed. The shawl's origin also been traced back to multiple eras, including the early 1800s and early 1900s, as well as different parts of Europe.

Due to many factors complicating the Jack the Ripper case, the murders may never be solved completely. The crimes spurred a flurry of hoax letters to the London Police department in the 1880s, and even the letters that were thought to be authentic, like the one that gave Jack the Ripper his nickname, may have been fabricated.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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