One of the contractors, Nicholas Slatten, has been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Three others — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were sentenced to between 12 and 15 years on manslaughter convictions.
The four men, all veterans, worked for the now-defunct Blackwater Worldwide security firm, which had been contracted by the State Department to provide protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
Investigators for the military and the FBI later described the shootings, in which the contractors unleashed a blaze of gunfire and grenade explosions in a busy Baghdad square, as unprovoked and unjustified. Federal prosecutors said that many of the victims, including women and children, some with their hands in the air, “were shot inside of civilian vehicles while attempting to flee.”
The incident came during a particularly dark period of the Iraq War and led to outcries in Iraq and the United States that private contractors — many of them former military personnel — were unsupervised and given unaccountable power in war zones.
U.S. refusal to allow the men to be tried in an Iraqi court led to a crisis in already-tense relations between the two countries. U.S. charges against them were dismissed in 2009 by a federal judge, who ruled that the Justice Department had mishandled evidence.
Then-vice president Joe Biden, speaking at a Baghdad news conference, expressed disappointment and said the Obama administration would appeal the decision.
“A dismissal is not an acquittal,” Biden said.
In subsequent years, as the case continued, the contractors became known in conservative media as the “Biden Four.”
In 2011, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated the charges, a ruling the Supreme Court declined to review.
Lawyers for the four men maintained throughout that the incident should be treated as a battlefield encounter and not a criminal act, and that they had come under attack. When the case went to trial in 2014, a jury found that Slatten had fired the first shots and convicted him of first-degree murder, making him liable for a life sentence. The other three, convicted of voluntary manslaughter, were each sentenced to 30 years in prison.
A U.S. appeals court threw out Slatten’s conviction in 2017 on grounds that he should have been allowed to separate his case from the others. It also ordered resentencing for Slough, Liberty and Heard, saying that the 30-year terms violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Slatten refused a plea offer of manslaughter, maintaining his innocence. He was retried in 2018 and convicted of first degree murder for shooting Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y. In August 2019, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in Washington sentenced him to a lifetime term.
When a resentencing hearing was held for the other three a month later, Lamberth rejected defense requests to limit their sentences to the five years they had already served. He sentenced Heard to 12 years and seven months, Liberty to 14 years and Slough to 15 years.
Campaigns urging that the four receive presidential pardons began in earnest last year, most arguing that the men were veterans still in engaged in quasi-military duties.
In a Fox News opinion column, then-Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) called “the Biden Four … political pawns who now sit in jail.”
“The fact remains, these brave men were sent to prison for doing their jobs,” it said.
Hunter, who resigned his seat last year after pleading guilty to misuse of campaign funds, was also pardoned by Trump on Tuesday.
Trump has previously intervened in military convictions. Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance was pardoned last year after being convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of two Afghans, as was Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced similar charges. Trump said at the time that the pardons would give troops “the confidence to fight” without having to look over their shoulders for potential legal liability.
Tuesday’s White House statement on the four new pardons emphasized their military service, saying “these veterans were working in Iraq in 2007 as security contractors responsible for securing the safety of United States personnel.”