Appeals judges toss murder conviction in Blackwater case
3 others convicted in killings of 14 Iraqis to be resentenced.
A U.S. appeals court Friday threw out the first-degree murder conviction of a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard sentenced to life in prison in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.
The court also ordered resentencings for three others convicted in the case.
The September 2007 shootings fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq War.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit panel ruled that the trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, even though he alone faced a murder charge for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.
In a split ruling, the court also found the 30-year terms of the three others who had been convicted of manslaughter — Paul Slough, 37, of Keller, Texas; Evan Liberty, 34, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin Heard, 35, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Lawyers for the four men were not immediately available for comment. It also could not immediately be determined if Slatten would be retried.
In overturning the 30-year terms, U.S. Circuit Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and Janice Rogers Brown wrote “we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty’s actions. Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people,” the judges wrote. But instead of using a “sledgehammer,” they said the sentencing judge should instead tailor more “nuanced” penalties.
Judge Judith Rogers disagreed. She called the 30-year terms “appropriate” for the crime and said other security guards at the scene chose not to fire their weapons.
Prosecutors said the four defendants, among 19 Blackwater guards providing security for State Department officials in Iraq, fired machine guns and grenade launchers recklessly after one of them falsely claimed their convoy was being threatened by a car bomber.
The guards said that they acted in self-defense after coming under gunfire as they cleared a path back to the nearby Green Zone for another Blackwater team that was evacuating a U.S. official from a nearby car bombing.
During the 10-week trial in 2014, no witness testified they saw the guards come under fire.
The defendants had vowed to appeal what one called a “perversion of justice,” saying they fired in self-defense in what was then one of the world’s most dangerous places.
At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the defendants, all U.S. military veterans, “appear overall to be good young men who have never been in trouble,” but added, “It is clear these fine young men just panicked.”