Attorneys for Indicted Blackwater Guards Lash Out at Justice Dept.

By Del Quentin Wilber and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Attorneys for five Blackwater Worldwide security guards charged in a 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead accused the government yesterday of engaging in unfair second-guessing of the contractors' actions in a combat zone.

The five guards -- a sixth is in plea negotiations -- were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Washington in the shooting, which occurred on Sept. 16, 2007, in Baghdad's bustling Nisoor Square, according to several sources familiar with the case. The indictment was sealed, and the exact charges are not known. The guards, all former military personnel, are expected to surrender to federal authorities tomorrow, the sources said.

Sources and the guards' defense lawyers identified those who were indicted as Evan Liberty, 26, a former Marine of Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, 25, a former Army sergeant of Sparta, Tenn.; Dustin Heard, 27, a former Marine corporal of Maryville, Tenn.; Donald Ball, 26, a former Marine corporal of Salt Lake City; and Paul Slough, 29, of Sanger, Tex., who served in the Army and the Texas National Guard. All except Liberty served with the military in Iraq. After concluding their service, the men signed up with Blackwater.

The guards' attorneys said they will fight the government on jurisdictional and factual grounds.

"I fully expect he will be vindicated at or before trial," said Steven McCool, a lawyer representing Ball.

Tom Connolly, who represents Slatten, said the "the indictment is an effort by bureaucrats in Washington to second-guess split-second decisions made by honorable men during a firefight in the most dangerous neighborhood in the world."

"Once the jury understands the events of Sept. 16, they are not going to do what the Department of Justice is doing -- which is second-guessing honorable men in a firefight," Connolly added. "Even if they have jurisdiction, we will prevail when we meet them on the facts."

Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District, declined to comment on the investigation, which is being overseen by his office and the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Calls to the guards' homes and to those of their relatives were not returned. Rick Potts, a longtime Rochester, N.H., friend of Liberty's, said he was shocked by the charges. "Evan is a real family kid, a nice kid," Potts said, echoing comments made about the other guards by their friends. "This is such a surprise. It's hard on the family."

In a prelude to the public relations fight likely to play out in the case, defense lawyers released biographical sketches of the guards that highlighted their military service records. They hope to show that the decorated veterans were well trained.

Heard received a certificate of appreciation in 2007 from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for his "outstanding professionalism" and was cited in a letter by a U.S. reconstruction official for "ensuring my safety" in a dangerous country.

Ball was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal for not losing focus during a mission despite encountering "numerous improvised explosive devices and small arm attacks." Liberty, Slough and Slatten received good conduct medals, among other citations.

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