August 5, 2017
By Rick Moran
A federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater Security contractor involved in a 2007 incident in Iraq where 17 civilians lost their lives.
Three other contractors who were also convicted in the 2015 trial had their 30 year sentences thrown out on Eighth Amendment grounds.
Blackwater maintained that the convoy of state department employees they were escorting came under attack in a crowded Baghdad square. But another contractor who turned states’ evidence disputed that fact, as did the US military. The jury convicted Slatten of first degree murder and the three other contractors of murder with a machine gun.
In a 2007 incident, 14 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad’s Nisour Square by Blackwater security employees protecting a four-truck convoy of State Department diplomats. Blackwater claimed the convoy was ambushed and the contractors engaged in a firefight. The four blackwater contractors who opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers were charged and convicted in 2014, Reuters reported.
Paul A. Slough, Dustin L. Heard, and Evan S. Liberty, were convicted of manslaughter with a machine gun, which carries a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence, NYT reported. The fourth contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, was a sniper who reportedly fired the first shots in the incident. He was convicted of murder and given a life sentence in October 2014, a decision thrown out by Friday’s ruling. He is to be retried.
The incident brought anger at U.S. involvement in the Middle East to a head, and many objected to the use of private military contracting in the war zone. However, both Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama used Blackwater security teams during trips to the region. It was a Blackwater operator who tackled a Middle Eastern man who threw a pair of shoes at President Bush duing his administration.
The organization couldn’t survive the public fallout following the 2007 incident, and founder Erik Prince later sold the company.
In a 2-1 decision, the court sided with defense attorneys who argued the 30-year minimum attached to crimes committed with a machine gun should not apply to the other three contractors because they were in a war zone and the U.S. government required them to carry the weapons.
The court found that the 30-years sentences were “grossly disproportionate to their culpability for using government-issued weapons in a war zone.”
Slatten ended up being charged with first degree murder because the Justice Department allowed the statute of limitations to run out on the initial charges. The appeals court ruled that Slatten’s rights were violated when the prosecution refused to allow his trial to be severed from his co-defendants. He will likely be retried, but on lesser charges.
About 30 Iraqi eyewitnesses were flown into the US to testify at the trial. The FBI lead investigator, John Patarini, reportedly told a colleague, “This is the My Lai massacre of Iraq.” Perhaps he was hoping for a book deal and a film made about the incident.
It wasn’t My Lai – not even close. Unless you want to believe the Blackwater contractors opened fire to deliberately kill civilians, you have to believe regardless of whether there was an ambush, Slatten and his colleagues believed there was. That doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. They violated the rules of engagement by employing grenade launchers when they believed they were under attack and 17 civilians died.
There is no doubt the contractors were guilty. But of what? Manslaughter, maybe. Negligent homicde, certainly. But first degree murder? It’s actions like that by the prosecutor that makes one question whether the trial was politically motivated.
Slatten will likely be retried on lesser charges. The three other contractors will have their sentences reduced. A sad chapter of the Iraq war will finally end a decade after the tragedy happened.