Ex-Blackwater security guard convicted in 2007 Iraqi civilian massacre at third US trial
By SPENCER S. HSU AND TOM JACKMAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 19, 2018
WASHINGTON — A former Blackwater security guard whose 2014 murder conviction was vacated on appeal was convicted by a federal jury Wednesday, ending the Justice Department’s long pursuit of accountability for a 2007 shooting of unarmed civilians in Baghdad that drew international condemnation during the Iraq War, the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington said.
A federal jury deliberated five days before finding Nicholas A. Slatten, 35, guilty of first-degree murder after a five-week trial in Washington.
It was the third time since 2014 that Slatten was on trial over the deaths at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007.
The outcome brings a muted end to an incident that triggered diplomatic and humanitarian protests over the U.S. government’s use of private military forces and marked one of the lowest points of the Iraq War.
Prosecutors alleged that Slatten, of Sparta, Tenn., fired the first shots and intentionally set off a shooting rampage that killed or injured 31 civilians, beginning with the death of the driver of a white Kia, Ahmed Haithem AhmedAl Rubia’y, 19.
In 2014, a jury in Washington convicted Slatten of murder and three fellow Blackwater Worldwide guards of 30 counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. The team was part of a four-vehicle convoy called Raven 23 protecting State Department personnel.
But in August 2017, a federal appeals court tossed Slatten’s life sentence and ordered a new trial, saying he should have been tried separately from a co-defendant, Paul A. Slough, 39. Slough had told investigators days after the shootings that he, not Slatten, fired the first rounds.
Slatten then received a retrial that ended in a hung jury in September, with the defense saying the convoy members had been acting in self-defense.
The third trial started Nov. 5.
At trial, Slatten’s defense seized on shifting statements by Blackwater convoy members who had testified against Slatten in his earlier trials.
They included Jimmy Watson, the leader of the four-vehicle convoy and Slatten’s vehicle mate, who retreated from earlier testimony to a grand jury that he had heard Slatten fire first, and Jeremy Ridgeway, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified for prosecutors in a plea deal.
Slatten lead defense lawyer Dane Butswinkas said to jurors in his closing argument, “Mr. Al Rubia’y’s death is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. But this is not a reason to compound the tragedy, by sending an innocent person to prison for as long as Mr. Ridgeway would have gone had he not cooperated.”
Prosecutors argued that Slatten acted out of general hatred for Iraqis and a misguided desire for revenge for the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
They said Ridgeway’s shifting memory was mistaken, and that Watson’s actions were an ongoing attempt to cover up responsibility for the attacks.
Referring to Slatten, prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez told jurors, “You know that this man took this sniper rifle, and through this scope he took aim at Ahmed’s head and he fired. Boom. And he fired again. Boom. And why?” Campoamor-Sanchez said in his closing argument. “Because, ladies and gentlemen, he thought he could get away with it. Nobody would know. He would never have to answer to people like you sitting in this jury room today.”
Prosecutors now face resentencings of three other convicted defendants. Their 30-year terms were set aside by the same three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that vacated Slatten’s conviction.
The appeals court ruled the punishment meted out to Slough, of Keller, Texas, Evan S. Liberty, of Rochester, N.H., and Dustin L. Heard, of Maryville, Tenn., violated a constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The three men received twice the maximum punishment for manslaughter alone after being convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, an enhanced penalty that was primarily aimed at gang members and had never been used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.
Charges first were brought against six Blackwater employees in 2008, but the extraordinary prosecution suffered numerous turns and setbacks.
A federal judge initially threw out the other indictments, saying prosecutors improperly relied on statements the guards gave State Department investigators immediately after the shooting, believing the statements would not be used in court.
An appeals panel reversed that ruling in 2011, clearing the way for prosecutors to obtain fresh indictments against Slatten and the three others.
However, prosecutors took so long to charge Slatten that the statutory time limit for bringing a manslaughter charge had expired, an error the appeals panel said also stemmed from an errant court ruling, a court found.
The Justice Department responded by charging Slatten, a former Army sniper, with first-degree murder, which has no statute of limitations, but required a higher burden of proof, including premeditation, which prosecutors labored to meet.
Thirty Iraqi shooting survivors and relatives of victims testified in person in a 2014 trial, marking the largest number of foreign witnesses to travel to the U.S. for a criminal trial, prosecutors said at the time.