By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009
A federal judge blocked the public Wednesday from attending a critical set of pretrial hearings in the prosecution of five U.S. security contractors accused of killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The hearings, which are expected to last through next week, will examine whether the government improperly used immunized statements by the Blackwater Worldwide security guards in its investigation. The guards gave the statements to the State Department shortly after the controversial shooting Sept. 16, 2007, in a busy Baghdad square.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said Wednesday that he was closing the hearings because he wanted to shield witnesses and potential jurors from pretrial publicity. He said he wanted to ensure the guards a fair trial.
The hearings in the District's federal court were not listed on the public docket, and filings by prosecutors and defense attorneys over the immunity issue have been sealed. A Washington Post reporter learned about the hearings several weeks ago and was told they would be open to the public. Last week, a court clerk told The Post that Urbina intended to close the hearings.
In a letter Tuesday, The Post asked Urbina to reconsider. Post attorney James McLaughlin said the court should have put the proceedings on the open docket and given the public an earlier chance to challenge the basis for the closure of the hearing. He said concerns about the impact of pretrial publicity were "highly speculative" unless supported by factual findings in open court.
Urbina denied The Post's request. He said the rights of the five guards to a fair trial outweighed the public's interest in attending the proceedings. He said he was concerned about how news accounts of the statements might affect witnesses, some as far away as Baghdad.
The judge added that he did not see a way to partially open the hearings because they will deal heavily with grand jury information. Grand jury proceedings are, by law, kept secret.
The five guards -- Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball -- are charged with voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations in the killing of 14 civilians and the wounding of 20 others. The Justice Department alleges that the guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square while in a convoy. One guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against the others.
Blackwater, which has since renamed itself Xe, had a contract to provide security for the State Department in Iraq.
The Justice Department's investigation has been complicated by many factors.
Agents and prosecutors were barred from gleaning information from immunized statements the guards gave to officials with the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security. When officials took the statements from the guards, the State Department was under pressure to quickly assess what happened.
The proceedings underway, known as Kastigar hearings, will probe how well investigators gathered evidence without being tainted by those immunized statements. If the judge finds the government's case is tainted, he might throw out the indictment.