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Sentences halved for three Blackwater guards in 2007 shootings of unarmed Iraqi civilians

Former Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough.
Former Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. (AP)

A federal judge resentenced three former Blackwater Worldwide security guards Thursday, cutting by about half the prison terms imposed for the shootings of unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, after an appeals court found their initial 30-year sentences unconstitutionally cruel.

The September 2007 shootings left 14 dead and 17 wounded, setting off a diplomatic crisis on oversight of American security contractors during one of the deadliest periods in the Iraq War.

After a three-hour hearing Thursday in Washington, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth handed down prison terms of 15 years for Paul A. Slough, 39, of Keller, Tex.; 14 years for Evan S. Liberty, 37, of Rochester, N.H.; and 12 years and seven months for Dustin L. Heard, 38, of Maryville, Tenn., on multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter each.

The hearing marked the latest turn in an extended prosecution since the events in Baghdad.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in August 2017 set aside sentences imposed after a 2014 trial, because the men’s convictions included one count of committing a felony while armed with a military weapon, a charge that carries a mandatory 30-year term.

The appeals court panel ruled that the charge, usually aimed at violent drug traffickers, had never been applied to security contractors carrying government-issued automatic weapons and explosives in a war zone, resulting in “grossly disproportionate” punishment.

Four Blackwater guards sentenced in Iraq shootings of 31 unarmed civilians

At resentencing, the defendants asked for time-served — about five years for each of them — while prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia sought terms of 26 to 30 years, on the basis of the number of victims attributed to each of the men.

The defense cited the men’s military and other service to their country, model behavior in prison, regret for the loss of innocent lives and the havoc of war.

Lamberth acknowledged the good character they had demonstrated while imprisoned and the extraordinary support shown by scores of family members, friends and backers who traveled at their own expense from their home states and filled the courtroom. Among those at the hearing was Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who declined to comment.

The judge said, however, that the men’s lawyers could not “change the facts” underlying their jury convictions: firing wildly for 20 minutes into cars stalled in midafternoon traffic at Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007, and sending machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds that included women stepping off buses who were clutching only purses, elderly men with their hands in the air and parents trying to shield young children.

“This kind of wild shooting cannot be condoned by any court,” Lamberth said, adding that “deterring future cases” of wartime excesses was an important factor in his decision-making.

The judge said the court did have a message to answer the question, “What kind of country is the United States?”

The reply, Lamberth said, was that “we have a military and armed contractors who respect the rule of law.”

Slough’s attorney Brian M. Heberlig, Liberty’s attorney William F. Coffield and Heard’s attorney David Schertler said they planned to appeal, citing the “overwhelming disparity” between their clients’ sentences and the one-year prison term for Jeremy Ridgeway, a Blackwater team member who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government.

“Our system provides for certain benefits for people who cooperate, but the disparity of 15 to 1 here is extreme,” Heberlig said in comments repeated by the others. “Obviously, we’re happy that the sentences are half what they were before … but we’re utterly disappointed that they have to serve even another minute behind bars,” he said.

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The appeals court also vacated the murder conviction and life term of a fourth defendant, Nicholas A. Slatten, citing errors in his trial. Slatten, 35, of Sparta, Tenn., then was convicted by a different federal jury in Washington and sentenced again in August to life.

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