A federal judge sentenced four former Blackwater USA security contractors Monday to long prison terms for killing Iraqi civilians in a notorious 2007 incident.
In a large courtroom packed with family members, supporters and survivors, three of the former Blackwater – now known as Academi – men received prison sentences of 30 years plus a day following their convictions on multiple voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges.
A fourth contractor, ex-sniper Nicholas A. Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., received a mandatory sentence of life for his conviction on one count of first-degree murder.
“The defendants appear to be overall good young men who served their country,” said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, before adding that “there is a serious sentence that needs to be imposed for these killings and woundings.”
Lamberth sentenced Slatten, along with Dustin L. Heard of Maryville, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; and Paul A. Slough of Keller, Texas, after a day of sometimes emotional testimony that highlighted the enduring scars left by the events of Sept. 16, 2007.
That day, a Washington jury concluded last October, the four security contractors killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
“It’s clear that these fine young men just panicked,” said Lamberth, adding that as a result of the trial, “the truth about Nisoor Square was out there for the world to see.”
A 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, Lamberth effectively gave Heard, Liberty and Slough the lowest sentence possible under federal sentencing guidelines. He rejected prosecutors’ request for much stiffer sentences of up to 57 years for Slough, 51 years for Liberty and 47 years for Heard. Because of mandatory sentencing requirements, Slatten’s life sentence was never really in question.
“What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Patrick Martin. “These men caused massive deaths and destruction.”
But while rejecting prosecutors’ request for longer sentences, Lamberth also denied defense attorneys’ requests that he break the mold of the 30-year term Congress established for the weapons offense. The machine guns and grenade launcher used by the Blackwater men in Nisoor Square were issued by the U.S. government so the contractors could protect State Department employees, defense attorneys noted
“This was decidedly dangerous and unpredictable,” said Heard’s attorney, David Schertler. “That’s what Iraq was.”
The four defendants, all U.S. military veterans, were part of a Blackwater tactical support team called “Raven 23.” Their job on Sept. 16, 2007, was to back up other Blackwater personal security details.
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 Nisoor Square 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.
Among those killed were a female dermatologist, a 40-year-old car salesman, a 55-year-old iron worker and a 9-year-old boy named Ali who was in a car with his father.
“Blackwater, they killed my son,” Ali’s father, Mohammed Kinani, said during a lengthy and at times heated victim’s impact statement delivered in the court. “I want to see these people in jail, to teach everyone a lesson.”
Ali’s mother, Fatimah Kinani, sounded less angry but more grief-stricken as she held up a picture of her son and asked the four shackled former Blackwater men a direct question.
“Why did you guys kill my son?” she asked.
In their own brief presentations, the four men maintained their innocence.
“I feel utterly betrayed by the government I served honorably,” Slough said. “I have faith that I will be exonerated in this life, and the next.”
A 35-year-old Army and Texas National Guard veteran, Slough was found guilty of 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 17 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense.
Liberty, a 32-year-old former Marine Corps embassy guard, was found guilty of eight counts of voluntary manslaughter, 12 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense.
A native of Olney, Texas, and another Marine Corps veteran, the 33-year-old Heard was found guilty of six counts of voluntary manslaughter, 11 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense.
Slatten, 31, is an Army veteran who served with the elite 82nd Airborne Division.
The one day that Lamberth tacked on to the 30-year term reflected sentences that will run concurrently for the manslaughter and attempted manslaughter charges. Lamberth noted that if the weapons charges are later reversed on appeal, he could re-sentence the men for the manslaughter counts.
Nearly 100 friends, family members and former colleagues of the ex-Blackwater men showed up, many wearing long-sleeve Blackwater T-shirts, attesting to the men’s good character and brave deeds. Lamberth called the expression of support “extraordinary.”
Typical was the testimony of Ricky West, a rancher who said he served as Slough’s “surrogate father.”
“He’s stuck to the values he learned growing up in West Texas,” West said.
The men were prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which permits the civilian prosecution of persons “employed by or accompanying the armed forces” overseas or working “in support” of a Defense Department mission.
The former security contractors with the North Carolina-based company were the first non-Defense Department contractors charged under the law. The weapons charge applied against them was originally envisioned by lawmakers as a tool to use against big-time drug traffickers.
“This case is quite unique,” Schertler said. “We can find no case that’s comparable.”