Ap­peals judges toss mur­der con­vic­tion in Black­wa­ter case

3 oth­ers con­victed in killings of 14 Iraqis to be re­sen­tenced.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Spencer S. Hsu Wash­ing­ton Post

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.”

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