The former Blackwater security guards, from left: Paul A. Slough, Dustin L. Heard, Nicholas A. Slatten and Evan S. Liberty (AP)
Four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards were convicted and immediately jailed last month for their roles in a deadly 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that marked a bloody nadir in America’s war in Iraq. A jury in Federal District Court found that the deaths of 17 Iraqis in the shooting, which began when a convoy of the guards suddenly began firing in a crowded intersection, was not a battlefield tragedy, but the result of a criminal act.
The convictions on murder, manslaughter and weapons charges represented a legal and diplomatic victory for the United States government, which had urged Iraqis to put their faith in the American court system. That faith was tested repeatedly over seven years as the investigation had repeated setbacks, leaving Iraqis deeply suspicious that anyone would be held responsible for the deaths.
“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney in Washington. “Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women and children. Today, they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families.”
One defendant, Nicholas A. Slatten, a sniper who the government said fired the first shots, was convicted of murder. The others — Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough — were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. A fifth contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter and cooperated with prosecutors.
Jurors could not reach verdicts on several of the counts against Mr. Heard, but that will have little bearing on the sentencing. The machine-gun charges carry mandatory 30-year minimum prison sentences, more than the manslaughter charges. Mr. Slatten faces possible life in prison. No sentencing date has been set.
The trial was an epilogue to the story of Blackwater, which began as a police- and military-training facility in North Carolina and came to symbolize the country’s outsourcing of its wartime responsibilities.
About 1,000 of Blackwater’s contractors guarded diplomats in Iraq. Others loaded bombs onto Predator drones. The company’s founder, Erik Prince, tapped retired Central Intelligence Agency officials for executive positions, and at one point, the C.I.A. hired Blackwater contractors to covertly track and kill Qaeda operatives worldwide, a program that was shelved before any killings were conducted.
While the company’s security guards were involved in scores of shootings in Iraq, it was the 2007 incident in Nisour Square that helped cement Blackwater’s image as a company that operated with impunity because of its lucrative contracts with the American government. The company became the subject of several Justice Department investigations, all of which the company and its executives survived. But ultimately, public outrage over the shooting contributed to Blackwater’s demise. It lost its contracts and was renamed, sold and renamed again.
Despite their skepticism about the trial, more than two dozen Iraqi witnesses volunteered to travel to Washington to testify. They described a scene of horror and confusion as they took cover from the machine-gun fire coming from American armored trucks. An Iraqi traffic officer described watching a woman cradle her dead’s son’s head on her shoulder, shortly before her own death. A father sobbed uncontrollably as he testified about his 9-year-old son’s death. And witnesses from inside the Blackwater convoy described their former colleagues as firing recklessly on innocent people.
The shooting began shortly after four American armored trucks rolled into Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007. The Blackwater contractors said insurgents ambushed them. Their lawyers described the death of innocent civilians as a tragic and unavoidable consequence of urban warfare.
“Nick Slatten is innocent,” his lawyer, Thomas Connolly, said after the verdicts were announced. “We’re disappointed that the jury found otherwise, but the jury’s verdict does not change the reality of what happened — and what didn’t happen — in Nisour Square.”
Prosecutors said the shooting was unprovoked. But with little forensic evidence and no ballistics linking any gunman to any victim, the case came down to the testimony of witnesses. Many told conflicting stories, forcing prosecutors to urge jurors to believe some aspects of their own case and discount others. During their 28 days of deliberations, jurors sent notes to Judge Royce C. Lamberth that hinted they were planning to convict in the case. But the defendants showed little emotion. Three of them arrived late to court. Mr. Heard broke the courtroom silence by popping open a Coke can just before the jury entered. Lawyers, however, said their clients were devastated by the verdicts.
“This was wrong,” said David Schertler, a lawyer for Mr. Heard. “This verdict is incomprehensible.”
The case against the Blackwater guards faced a number of hurdles, many of them of the government’s own making. From the outset, there were indications that State Department officials tried to gather shell casings after the shooting in an effort to protect Blackwater. The State Department also gave the contractors limited immunity after the shooting, which made it significantly harder for the Justice Department to build its case.
A judge threw out all charges in 2009, citing “reckless” government behavior. A new prosecution team salvaged the case but dropped charges against one guard because of a lack of evidence.
Then prosecutors missed a deadline to recharge Mr. Slatten. That is why he alone was charged with murder, which has no statute of limitations.
Susan L. Burke, a lawyer who represented Iraqi victims in a lawsuit against Blackwater, said the conviction sent a message to the world about the power of American courts. “But I don’t think anything can make up for the loss of a family member,” she said.
Blackwater settled the wrongful-death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
The criminal trial raised novel legal issues, and the case is expected to wind through the appellate courts for a year or more. One issue — whether the Justice Department had jurisdiction to bring the case at all — could undo the entire case.
Under federal law, the government has jurisdiction for overseas crimes committed by defense contractors or those supporting the Pentagon’s mission. Blackwater was working for the State Department, a distinction that jurors concluded did not matter but which has not been tested.
Defense lawyers are expected to ask an appeals court to let the contractors out of jail while the appeal plays out. “There’s more to be done on this case,” William F. Coffield, a lawyer for Mr. Liberty, said as he left court.