Court tosses conviction in ’07 killings of 14 Iraqis
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.