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Four Blackwater Guards Convicted in 2007 Shootings of 31 Unarmed Iraqi Civilians
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Four Blackwater Guards Convicted in 2007 Shootings of 31 Unarmed Iraqi Civilians

Summary: Four military veterans were convicted on Wednesday for their part in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi citizens and wounded 17 more.

In 2007, 14 Iraqi citizens were killed and another 17 were wounded when American security contractors fired machine guns and grenades into a traffic circle in Baghdad. According to the Washington Post, on Wednesday, four Blackwater Worldwide guards were convicted of murder and manslaughter by a jury.

  
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During the 10-week trial, prosecutors argued that the contractors fired carelessly in a failed security operation after one of the contractors falsely claimed he thought the driver of an approaching vehicle was a car bomber. They stated that they acted in self-defense and that their response was appropriate for a car-bomb threat and the sound of AK-47 gunfire. None of the victims was an insurgent.

David Schertler, an attorney for one of the guards, Dustin Heard, said that the verdict was “incomprehensible.” He added, “The verdict is wrong. We’re devastated. We’re going to fight this every step of the way.”

William Coffield, the attorney for Evan S. Liberty, stated that his client plans to appeal. He said, “It’s difficult to understand the verdict given the evidence. There are a lot of appellate issues here.”

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The jury was composed of eight women and four men. They deliberated for 28 days before issuing a verdict. Nicholas A. Slatten, 30, of Sparta, Tennessee, was convicted of murder. Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Texas was convicted of 13 counts of manslaughter and 17 counts of attempted manslaughter. Liberty, from Rochester, New Hampshire, was convicted of eight counts of manslaughter and 12 counts of attempted manslaughter. Finally, Heard, a 33-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee, was found guilty of six counts of manslaughter and 11 counts of attempted manslaughter.

In addition, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted of using military firearms during the commission of a felony.



Slatten received a mandatory sentence of life in prison for the murder charge. The other three contractors face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. All four men are military veterans. U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that sentencing would be held at a later date.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr., whose office prosecuted the case, said, “This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war. I pray that this verdict will bring some sense of comfort to the survivors of that massacre.”

Andrew G. McCabe, the chief of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, commented, “Today’s verdict demonstrates the FBI’s dedication to investigating violations of U.S. law no matter where they occur.”

Prosecutors had attempted for years to bring the case to trial, and is a landmark event in the government’s attempts to monitor security contractors’ behavior in war zones.

The United States government refused to allow the men to be tried in Iraq, and tension mounted between the two countries. “Blackwater” soon became a moniker for unaccountable American power.

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Lawmakers condemned the shooting, which occurred in Nisour Square, as recently as July. However, legislation that would clarify jurisdiction for American prosecutors and investigators to pursue criminal acts overseas by private security contractors has stalled for years.

Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, praised the verdict, but said, “It should not have taken this long for justice to be served…Ensuring that our government has the ability to hold government contractors accountable should be a bipartisan issue, and I hope senators of both parties will work together to pass this important reform.”

Erik Prince, the founder of the company, eventually resigned. The company has since been renamed Xe Services and then Academi.

The verdicts against the security contractors were quite different from how a 2005 raid was handled. During that raid, 25 unarmed Iraqis were killed by U.S. service members. Women and children were killed in the Haditha home raid, which was located in the Anbar province.

Originally, eight Marines were charged, but seven Marines had their charges dropped. The dropped charges ranged from assault to involuntary manslaughter. Only Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich was convicted for the incident. He pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty and received no jail time. His rank, however, was reduced.

The Blackwater defendants were part of a group of 19 guards who worked security for State Department officials in Iraq. During the incident, their convoy had cleared a path for a different Blackwater team that was evacuating a U.S. official from a car bombing that had occurred close by.

The prosecution faced several challenges in its case. Initially, charges were brought against six Blackwater contractors in 2008. One of the contractors, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified for the government at trial. Charges were dismissed against another contractor, Donald Ball.

Other indictments were dismissed by a federal judge in 2009. The judge stated that prosecutors should not have relied on statements that the guards provided to the State Department right after the incident, as they believed that the statements would not be used in court. However, an appeals court reversed the judge’s ruling in 2011, and prosecutors were able to obtain fresh indictments against the contractors.

The four defendants who remained claimed that the shooting was initiated by Ridgeway and Jimmy Watson, the convoy’s team leader. Prosecutors conceded that Ridgeway suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and that he “lost it” in Iraq. Watson was granted immunity for testifying against the other contractors.

Prosecutors called 70 witnesses to the stand. The defense called four. Some employees disagreed over who fired the first shots. Others agreed that they heard incoming AK-47 gunfire.

The prosecution also hit a snag in the trial when they realized that they had not turned over all the photographic evidence of the incident. This included a photograph of AK-47 shell casings from a bus stop near the area where the contractors heard gunfire.

However, the jury did not buy that the guards acted in self-defense. The jury felt that the contractors used excessive force and acted unreasonably by starting firefight with an unknown enemy, especially since civilians were killed without evaluating the threat they posed.

However, prosecutors maintained that the convoy’s command vehicle was slammed by shrapnel from an American grenade. They added that Slatten “lit the match that ignited the firestorm” in closing arguments. Slough, the convoy command vehicle’s turret gunner, was charged with causing the most damage.

The prosecution called 30 Iraqi witnesses, which was said to be the most foreign witnesses to have testified in a criminal trial in the United States.

The prosecution also added that both Slatten and Liberty felt negativity toward the civilian population in Iraq, and that Slough sometimes fired on Iraqi targets without provocation.

However, the defense maintained that the contractors acted reasonably at a time when the capital was the center of “horrific threats” from ambushes and car bombs. Some attacks were aided by Iraqi security forces and permeated by guerillas. They added that the government was overreaching past the limits of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows prosecution of government employees and contractors for criminal acts that are committed while abroad. The defense argued that the contractors had signed on with the State Department, not the Pentagon. The prosecution, however, argued that the MEJA covers those who work in relation to U.S. military missions.

Photo credit: NBC.com



 

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