By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards pleaded not guilty yesterday to federal charges that they unleashed an unprovoked salvo of bullets and grenades in a busy Baghdad square in 2007, killing at least 14 Iraqi civilians and injuring 20 others.
A federal judge in the District set a trial date for next January in a shooting that strained relations between Washington and Baghdad and raised questions about the oversight and use of security contractors in war zones. The guards did not speak during their arraignment on 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter and one count of discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. They will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years if convicted of the firearms charge.
In coming months, defense lawyers are expected to file numerous motions challenging the evidence and whether the government can bring criminal charges in the case. U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina scheduled a hearing for Feb. 17 on some of the legal issues.
"They are not guilty, and we look forward to proving that in court," said David Schertler, a lawyer who represents one of the guards.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
At the time of the shooting on Sept. 16, 2007, the guards worked for Blackwater Worldwide, a North Carolina-based security firm that has a contract to protect State Department personnel in Iraq. They were part of a 19-member security convoy that was responding to a car bombing near another Blackwater convoy when they entered Baghdad's Nisoor Square, prosecutors said.
The guards set up a blockade in the square and opened fire on a small car, killing a doctor and her son, who was a medical student, prosecutors said. Soon, the guards were shooting in all directions with assault rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, according to the indictment and other court documents.
One man was shot in the chest while he raised his arms in the air, prosecutors said, and another was wounded when a contractor's grenade detonated in a girls' school. Others were shot in cars heading away from the action, prosecutors said. Prosecutors said none of the victims were armed and described the shooting as an "unprovoked and illegal attack."
The guards, indicted last month by a federal grand jury in the District, are Paul Slough, 29, of Keller, Tex.; Nicholas Slatten, 24, of Sparta, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty, 26, of Rochester, N.H.; Dustin L. Heard, 27, of Maryville, Tenn.; and Donald Ball, 26, of West Valley, Utah. They were released on personal recognizance after the hearing.
A sixth former guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 34, of Fallbrook, Calif., pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter and attempting to commit manslaughter and is cooperating with the government, according to sources familiar with the investigation.