Court or­ders new trial in Black­wa­ter killings

Three-judge panel tosses first-de­gree mur­der con­vic­tion of con­trac­tor

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Michael Biesecker

WASH­ING­TON» A fed­eral ap­peals court on Fri­day over­turned the first-de­gree mur­der con­vic­tion of a for­mer Black­wa­ter se­cu­rity con­trac­tor, or­der­ing a new trial for the man pros­e­cu­tors say fired the first shots in the 2007 slay­ings of 14 Iraqi civil­ians at a crowded traf­fic cir­cle in Bagh­dad.

In a split opin­ion, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Ap­peals of the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia Cir­cuit ruled a lower court erred by not al­low­ing Ni­cholas Slat­ten to be tried sep­a­rately from his three co-de­fen­dants in 2014. The 33-year-old con­trac­tor from Ten­nessee is serv­ing a life sen­tence for his role in the killings, which strained in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and drew in­tense scru­tiny of the role of Amer­i­can con­trac­tors in the Iraq War.

The court also or­dered new sen­tences for the three other con­trac­tors, Paul Slough, Evan Lib­erty and Dustin Heard. They were each found guilty of man­slaugh­ter and firearms charges car­ry­ing manda­tory 30-year terms.

The judges de­ter­mined those sen­tences vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional pro­hi­bi­tion of cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment be­cause pros­e­cu­tors charged them with us­ing mil­i­tary firearms while com­mit­ting an­other felony. That statute, typ­i­cally em­ployed against gang mem­bers or bank rob­bers, had never be­fore been used against over­seas se­cu­rity con­trac­tors work­ing for the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

A spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Wash­ing­ton said pros­e­cu­tors were still 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.”

It’s not clear that any new sen­tences for the de­fen­dants will be sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent than the ones orig­i­nally im­posed. At the April 2015 sen­tenc­ing hear­ing, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Royce Lam­berth said he was “very sat­is­fied with a 30-year sen­tence.”

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