Court tosses con­vic­tion in ’07 killings of 14 Iraqis

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - SPENCER S. HSU In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Michael Biesecker and Eric Tucker of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

WASH­ING­TON — A U.S. ap­peals court on 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.”

They re­ceived 30 years be­cause they were also con­victed of us­ing mil­i­tary firearms while com­mit­ting a felony, a charge that has pri­mar­ily been aimed at gang mem­bers and never be­fore against se­cu­rity con­trac­tors given mil­i­tary weapons by the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

It could not im­me­di­ately be de­ter­mined whether Slat­ten would be re­tried.

A spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Wash­ing­ton said pros­e­cu­tors were re­view­ing the de­ci­sion and had no im­me­di­ate com­ment.

Bill Coffield, a lawyer for Lib­erty, said he planned to meet with Lib­erty to re­view their op­tions. “Ob­vi­ously we’re pleased with the court’s de­ci­sion in terms of the un­con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the sen­tence,” he said.

David Schertler, a lawyer for Heard, said in a state­ment that though he be­lieved his client was en­ti­tled to a new trial, “we are grat­i­fied that the court rec­og­nized the gross in­jus­tice of the 30 year manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences im­posed in the unique war zone cir­cum­stances of this case.”

The four se­cu­rity guards opened fire on the Iraqis, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren, at Nisour Square.

In over­turn­ing the 30-year terms, U.S. Cir­cuit Judges Karen LeCraft Hen­der­son and Janice Rogers Brown wrote that “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.”

But in­stead of us­ing a “sledge­ham­mer,” they said, the sen­tenc­ing judge — U.S. Dis­trict Judge Royce Lam­berth of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — should in­stead tai­lor more “nu­anced” penal­ties based on each de­fen­dant’s wrong­do­ing.

U.S. Cir­cuit Judge Ju­dith Rogers dis­agreed, say­ing the claim “lacks any merit what­so­ever,” call­ing the 30-year terms “ap­pro­pri­ate” for the crime and say­ing other se­cu­rity guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.

Pros­e­cu­tors said the four de­fen­dants, among 19 Black­wa­ter guards pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for State Depart­ment of­fi­cials in Iraq, fired ma­chine guns and grenade launch­ers in a reck­less and out-of-con­trol way af­ter one of them falsely claimed their con­voy, called Raven 23, was threat­ened by a car bomber.

The guards said they acted in self-de­fense af­ter com­ing un­der AK-47 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 wit­nesses tes­ti­fied that they saw the guards come un­der fire, nor was ev­i­dence found that AK-47 ri­fles car­ried by Iraqi in­sur­gents were used at the time.

The four se­cu­rity guards were con­victed in Oc­to­ber 2014 and sen­tenced the fol­low­ing April be­fore Lam­berth in Wash­ing­ton. A 12-per­son jury found the men guilty of open­ing fire on the Iraqis.

The de­fen­dants had vowed to ap­peal what one called a “per­ver­sion of jus­tice,” say­ing they fired in self-de­fense in a war zone and a city that was then one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous places.

At sen­tenc­ing, Lam­berth, a Ron­ald Rea­gan ap­pointee and for­mer Army cap­tain, 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.”

Lam­berth com­mended the U.S. gov­ern­ment for “find­ing and ex­pos­ing the truth of what hap­pened” af­ter a long and trou­bled prose­cu­tion, say­ing it en­trusts con­trac­tors with deadly weapons and trains them to use them only when nec­es­sary and jus­ti­fied by the cir­cum­stances.

“The over­all, wild, thing that went on here can just not be con­doned by a court,” Lam­berth said. “A court has to rec­og­nize the sever­ity of the crimes com­mit­ted, in­clud­ing the num­ber of vic­tims.”

How­ever, Lam­berth at the time ac­knowl­edged crit­i­cism by at­tor­neys for Slough, Lib­erty and Heard about ap­ply­ing the manda­tory 30-year term pros­e­cu­tors sought for the firearms charge.

Lam­berth sen­tenced the three men to time served on their other con­vic­tions for man­slaugh­ter and at­tempted man­slaugh­ter, as de­fense at­tor­neys sought, but did so say­ing he ex­pected he could re­sen­tence them if the firearms en­hance­ment was re­versed.

By a 2-1 vote, the three­judge panel did just that Fri­day, find­ing that pros­e­cu­tors mis­ap­plied a law that Congress orig­i­nally aimed at vi­o­lent drug traf­fick­ers to U.S. con­trac­tors with no pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal record, re­sult­ing in a pun­ish­ment “grossly dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their cul­pa­bil­ity for us­ing gov­ern­ment-is­sued weapons in a war zone.”

The North Carolina-based se­cu­rity firm’s founder, Erik Prince, even­tu­ally left the com­pany, which was re­named Xe Ser­vices, then later sold and re­named Academi.

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