By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010; A01
A federal judge dismissed charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a controversial shooting in a busy Baghdad square two years ago in a ruling that sharply criticized the tactics of Justice Department prosecutors handling the case.
The judge, Ricardo M. Urbina of the District's federal court, found that prosecutors and agents had improperly used statements that the guards provided to the State Department in the hours and days after the shooting. The statements had been given with the understanding that they would not be used against the guards in court, the judge found, and federal prosecutors should not have used them to help guide their investigation. Urbina said other Justice Department lawyers had warned the prosecutors to tread carefully around the incriminating statements.
"In their zeal to bring charges," Urbina wrote in a 90-page opinion, "prosecutors and investigators aggressively sought out statements in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the subsequent investigation. In so doing, the government's trial team repeatedly disregarded the warnings of experienced, senior prosecutors, assigned to the case specifically to advise the trial team" on such matters.
The five Blackwater guards -- a sixth has pleaded guilty -- were indicted in December 2008 on manslaughter and weapons charges accusing them of killing and injuring unarmed civilians.
Federal prosecutors have said the guards killed 14 Iraqis and wounded 20 in an unprovoked blaze of bullets and grenade explosions. The guards' attorneys have said their clients fired in self-defense after being shot at by insurgents.
The incident, which badly strained U.S.-Iraqi relations, was the most serious one involving private security contractors in recent years, and it raised questions about using such guards in war zones. It so badly stigmatized Blackwater that the company renamed itself Xe Services.
Human rights groups have decried the incident and others involving contractors and U.S. troops that resulted in the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that the company had been involved in at least 195 incidents in Iraq in which weapons were fired.
The Iraqi government wanted the guards tried in Baghdad and promised to watch the case closely. "The world quaked because of this crime," Fared Waleed Hasson, who was injured in the shooting, said in Iraq. "How have we lost our rights so quickly?"
The decision is the latest embarrassment for the Justice Department in a high-profile prosecution. In April, the department asked a federal judge to dismiss the corruption conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) after lapses by prosecutors.'Lacking in credibility'
At the time of the Blackwater incident, the guards were providing security for diplomats under a State Department contract and were members of a four-vehicle convoy that secured an evacuation route for U.S. officials fleeing a bomb explosion Sept. 16, 2007. In the hours and days after the shooting, the guards provided detailed statements to State Department investigators. The guards' attorneys contended that the statements were immunized -- meaning they could not be used in any criminal prosecution -- because their clients would have been fired if they had refused to comply.
The judge held several weeks of hearings, which included testimony from prosecutors, agents and other Blackwater guards, to see whether the government properly avoided using the statements.
Federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Kohl, argued that they had steered clear of the statements and that any mistakes were harmless. Urbina said he did not buy the government's arguments.
Prosecutors' explanations were "often contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility," he wrote, calling the conduct a "reckless violation" of the guards' rights. The judge found that investigators used the statements to steer their probe and to help them decide whom to charge.
Urbina's decision, coming on New Year's Eve, surprised Justice Department officials, the guards' attorneys and relatives of the victims in Baghdad. Many were preparing for a trial, which had been set to start Feb. 1. Jurors were being summoned to appear Jan. 11 as part of a screening process.
The Justice Department can appeal the ruling. But legal experts said it will have a difficult time because Urbina wrote such a detailed opinion and held such long hearings. Prosecutors can also seek a fresh indictment but would be precluded from using any evidence that Urbina ruled was tainted. That would be another tough task because Urbina eviscerated much of the government's case. He also found that many of its key witnesses were badly tainted by the guards' statements, which they had read or heard about in the news media.Faith, disappointment
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said officials were reviewing the opinion. "We're obviously disappointed by the decision," he said.
Attorneys for the guards -- Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball -- said they were pleased and hoped the government wouldn't appeal. "It really puts your faith back in the system," said Bill Coffield, Liberty's attorney.
Mark Hulkower, who represents Slough, said, "We are very gratified by the judge's thoughtful and reasoned opinion."
It is not clear what will happen to Jeremy Ridgeway, the guard who pleaded guilty. His attorney, William Sullivan, could not be reached for comment. As part of the plea deal, the government had agreed to drop the charges if Urbina had ruled against it on a jurisdictional issue. But the plea deal has no provision for a ruling based on the guards' statements.
In Baghdad, relatives and victims of the shooting expressed frustration when told of Urbina's decision. "There is no justice. These [people] have to have a trial in Iraq," said Hussein Ali, the brother of Sa'di Ali, who was killed in Nissor Square.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondents Michael Hastings and Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.