An infamous chapter of the Iraq War closed Wednesday as a jury convicted four former Blackwater Worldwide contractors of killing unarmed civilians in the chaotic streets of Baghdad.
The former Blackwater men were charged with killing 14 civilians and wounding others on Sept. 16, 2007, at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in what defense attorneys called a legitimate defensive action and prosecutors labeled a massacre.
“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen.
The long-awaited verdicts, presented in a packed, second-floor courtroom, came on the 28th day of jury deliberations that began Sept. 2. The jury of eight women and four men convicted Dustin L. Heard of Maryville, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; and Paul A. Slough of Keller, Texas, on multiple voluntary manslaughter charges.
They were also found guilty of multiple counts of attempt to commit voluntary manslaughter, as well as weapons charges.
Nicholas A. Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., was convicted of first-degree murder.
“Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women and children,” Machen said. “Today, they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families.”
The four defendants showed no visible signs of emotion during the lengthy reading of the multiple verdicts. Once the verdicts were in and a mistrial declared on three remaining counts, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the men taken into immediate custody, over the objections of defense attorneys.
“We believe there’s a substantial likelihood that a motion for a new trial will be granted,” said defense attorney Brian Heberlig. “Over the past seven years, the defendants have shown by clear and convincing evidence that they pose no risk to the community.”
Another defense attorney, David Schertler, added that “this was a long and complicated trial, and there were a lot of issues raised” that might support the defendants on appeal. Prosecutors, though, successfully argued that the former security contractors were a risk for flight in light of the long prison time they’re facing.
The 10-week trial itself was a thicket of information, as prosecutors summoned 71 witnesses, 30 of them from Iraq. Defense attorneys called four, including former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.
The diplomatically sensitive case has been closely watched in Iraq, where memories of widespread civilian casualties during the U.S.-led occupation remain vivid. Certain precincts of North Carolina have also paid close attention. The state is home to the firm, which is no longer called Blackwater.
Founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince in 1997, Blackwater grew rapidly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the U.S. government’s increasingly controversial reliance on private contractors. The company’s behavior became notorious in some circles.
“The Blackwater contractors saw themselves as ‘above the law’ and actually believed that ‘they ran the place,’ ” one unhappy State Department official wrote in an Aug. 31, 2007, memo that was made public during the trial without naming the official.
Its reputation blackened by the Nisour Square shootings, the company changed its name to Xe Services in 2009. It’s since been renamed again as Academi, with new owners and a board of directors that includes former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The trial marked the second time around for the government. A federal judge dismissed the original charges, concluding that prosecutors had violated the Blackwater guards’ constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
“In their zeal to bring charges against the defendants in this case, the prosecutors and investigators aggressively sought out statements the defendants had been compelled to make to government investigators in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the subsequent investigation,” U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina wrote in his Dec. 31, 2009, opinion.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit subsequently reversed Urbina, permitting prosecutors to revisit an ambiguous wartime event.
“Today’s verdict demonstrates the FBI’s dedication to investigating violations of U.S. law no matter where they occur,” said Andrew G. McCabe, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “International investigations such as this one are very complex and frequently dangerous.”
The four defendants, all military veterans, were part of a Blackwater tactical support team called “Raven 23.” Their job that day was to back up other Blackwater personal security details. The Raven 23 convoy consisted of four vehicles, and the men were armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, rifles and pistols.
Shortly before noon, Raven 23 heard that a vehicle-borne homemade bomb had detonated near where U.S. officials were meeting with Iraqi officials. The Raven 23 convoy subsequently took up positions in Nisour Square, a traffic circle outside the International Zone in downtown Baghdad, to secure an evacuation route.
According to prosecutors, Raven 23 opened fire on a small white Kia sedan that had approached the intersection, fatally wounding the driver. Heavy machine-gun fire continued from the Blackwater convoy, directed at the Kia sedan, other vehicles and eventually toward unarmed civilians.
The first to die was Ahmed Haithem Ahmed al Rubia’y, 21, an aspiring doctor, who was driving his mother to an appointment. His mother, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum al Khazali, 44, a medical doctor, also was killed.
Another former member of Raven 23, onetime Southern California resident Jeremy P. Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified against his former colleagues. He hasn’t yet been sentenced.
All told, the 35-year-old Slough was found guilty of 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 17 counts of attempted manslaughter and one firearms offense. Each voluntary manslaughter count could bring a 15-year prison sentence, and each attempted manslaughter count could bring a seven-year sentence.
Liberty, 32, was found guilty of eight counts of voluntary manslaughter, 12 counts of attempted manslaughter and one firearms offense.
Heard, 33, was found guilty of six counts of voluntary manslaughter, 11 counts of attempted manslaughter and one firearms offense.
Slatten, 30, who was said to have fired the first shot, was found guilty of first-degree murder. He faces a mandatory life sentence
“Your task,” Lamberth told the jurors, “has come to an end.”