ARLINGTON, VA — A U.S. federal jury has found an MQ-9 Reaper drone not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter in the aerial bombing death of a young American teenager, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in October 2011.
As the verdict was read, the defendant YIPPEEKIYAY-88 sat motionless in the courtroom with a blank expression, its onboard camera swiveling back and forth between the jury and its operator, Capt. Ted Slaughter, who would have faced charges as an accessory to murder had there been a conviction.
Outside, dozens of supportive Reaper and Predator drones, waving signs like "01010000 01100001 01110101 01101100" and "01100111 00101101 01101000 01100001 01100100", flew back and forth over the courthouse.
Awlaki family attorney Gul Haji Rachman gave a tearful speech to reporters, in which he vowed the fight was not over.
"Today, we are all Abdulrahman al-Awlaki," Rachman said, as he donned traditional Yemeni garb of a zenneh, jambiya, and RPG-7. "This Reaper was clearly targeting this young boy, just walking around the neighborhood, minding his business with a bushel of khat," he added, shortly before he himself was killed in a drone strike.
While the drone strike was originally written off by investigators as just another routine bombing, it gained traction following a massive public backlash. At one point U.S. President Barack Obama gave a televised address, vowing "to get to the bottom of this" and exclaiming, "If I had a son, he'd look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki."
During court proceedings, YIPPEEKIYAY-88 maintained its innocence, saying that Awlaki had attacked it first, and displaying pictures of its cracked camera as proof that it was acting in self-defense.
"01010111 01100001 01100111 01101110 01100101 01110010 00100000 01101100 01101111 01110110 01100101 01110011 00100000 01100011 01101111 01100011 01101011," it said while being cross-examined, prompting prosecuting attorney Maria Markovic to demand, "And how exactly is that relevant?"
The prosecution called the drone a "wannabe vigilante," arguing that it had no business flying over another country with its own army and police force. They also played tapes of YIPPEEKIYAY-88's operator calling Langley, Va. to report his suspicions of al-Awlaki — at one point muttering, "fucking terrorists" — which some see as a clear case of profiling.
"We see a lot of suspicious activity patrolling over Yemen, sure," Capt. Slaughter said in an interview with police, "but this kid was acting really strange. He was peering into mud huts, walking around aimlessly, and appeared to be speaking in Arabic: clearly up to no good."
"When YIPPEEKIYAY-88 told me it was going out of his flight path to pursue him, I told it, 'you don't need to do that.' We can always hit him on the way back to base."
The trial itself was relatively brief: just three weeks of testimony. Legal experts also believe the prosecution's case fell apart after a key witness was tragically incinerated by a 500 lb bomb while sitting in her bathtub.
At press time, the father of Awlaki could not be reached for comment.
Duffel Blog writer Paul contributed to this article.