Judge Refuses to Drop Charges Against Blackwater Guards
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A federal judge yesterday refused to throw out charges against five U.S. security contractors accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad square in 2007.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina came in an early legal challenge brought by lawyers representing the guards, who worked at the time for Blackwater Worldwide. The guards' attorneys had argued that the government did not have jurisdiction to bring the charges.
The guards were indicted in December on federal charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using a firearm in a crime of violence in the controversial shooting in bustling Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. The government says the guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on Iraqi civilians that day, killing 14 and wounding 20 in a blaze of bullets and grenade explosions.
The charges were brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows U.S. prosecutors to charge American service members, their family members and those employed by the military for illegal acts committed overseas.
A 2004 amendment expanded the act to cover those working "in support" of Defense Department missions, a provision that prosecutors argue covers security contractors, such as Blackwater.
Attorneys for the guards argued yesterday that Blackwater was not supporting the military mission and, thus, the Justice Department does not have jurisdiction to bring charges. The company, which has since renamed itself Xe, had a contract with the State Department and the guards were providing security for diplomats, not the military, they argued.
"What Blackwater was doing does not create jurisdiction over this case," argued Mark Hulkower, a defense attorney.
Although Urbina said the guards' legal arguments "are rather strong," he declined to toss out the charges. Such questions should be addressed by the judge or jury after prosecutors present their case in court, Urbina said.
Urbina also rejected an argument by the guards that the indictment should be dismissed because the government improperly brought charges in the District, not in the home state of one of the defendants.
The guards -- Paul Slough, 29, Nicholas Slatten, 24, Evan S. Liberty, 26, Dustin L. Heard, 27, and Donald Ball, 26 -- live in Tennessee, New Hampshire, Texas and Utah. A sixth guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 34, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter charges in the District and is expected to cooperate with prosecutors.
Defense attorneys are expected to file several motions over the next year to derail the prosecution. The trial has been tentatively scheduled to start next February.