Question about admiralty law

I’m writing a story, and I can’t seem to find an answer to this question, and I’m hoping one of you might be able to help me. (Joe? Alex?)

A murder is committed on an American ship in international waters. The ship is too far away from shore to simply return — it will take several days at least, during which time the murderer may strike again.

What can the captain do under these circumstances? Can he detain people of interest without giving them access to a lawyer? Can he order everyone to stay in their cabins? If the murderer is found, can he be detained with a citizen’s arrest?

Here’s the other question: what would happen on a spaceship? Spaceships are subject, as far as I understand, to a modified version of admiralty law. If someone was murdered on a spaceship, what could the captain and/or crew do about it?

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  1. I’m pretty sure the captain of a ship at sea can do whatever the hell he wants. Up to and including locking up all the passengers, opening all their bags, and throwing the whole lot over the side… of course he might have trouble keeping his job when he got home. To put it another way, if he thought said passenger was a pirate, he’d be within his rights to shoot him.

    I’m not sure if it being an American ship would matter, but certainly no other ship outside of American waters cares about American laws. Access to a lawyer, etc, isn’t exactly an international right, as you know.

  2. A lot of this depends on what era you’re talking about. Before the era of jet aircraft I would say that a captain could detain a prisoner indefinitely on board until they reached port, and that the prisoner would have to waive his right to counsel until they docked. But in this day and age, the prisoner would probaly be flown to some US military base to be bound over for trial.

    That said, I think your assumptions about traditional admiralty laws are generally correct.

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