Conviction, sentences upended in Blackwater case

Blackwater Worldwide security guards Evan Liberty (left) and Dustin Heard (right) leave the federal courthouse with their legal team and supporters, on Jan 6, 2009.
Blackwater Worldwide security guards Evan Liberty (left) and Dustin Heard (right) leave the federal courthouse with their legal team and supporters, on Jan 6, 2009.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A federal appeals court on Friday (Aug 4) threw out lengthy prison sentences for three former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors and ordered a new trial for a fourth involved in a deadly 2007 shooting in Baghdad that became a symbol of unchecked, freewheeling US power in Iraq.

The shooting killed or injured at least 31 civilians when contractors unleashed a torrent of machine-gun fire and launched grenades into a crowded downtown Baghdad traffic circle from their heavily armored trucks.

The ruling is a setback to the effort - which now stretches across three presidential administrations - to demand stiff consequences for the shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square. Along with the massacre by Marines of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha and the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, it was among the war's darkest moments.

Three of the contractors - Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough - were convicted in 2014 of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. They were sentenced to 30 years in prison, a mandatory sentence on the machine-gun charge. A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, a sniper who the government said fired the first shots, was convicted of murder and received a life sentence.

Defence lawyers argued that the convoy was under fire from insurgents, a claim that prosecutors denied and Iraqi witnesses rejected.

Agents had pushed hard to include the machine-gun charges.

The Justice Department ultimately acquiesced, although some prosecutors believed it was unfair to add an extra penalty for using a weapon that the US government required them to carry.

The appeals court agreed. The three-judge panel ruled that the machine-gun law was intended to punish people who intentionally brought dangerous weapons with them to carry out violent crimes, and declared the contractors' sentences "grossly disproportionate to their culpability for using government-issued weapons in a war zone".

The court ordered that three of the contractors be resentenced, a ruling that could significantly reduce their prison terms.

Slatten's conviction was thrown out entirely.

William Miller, a spokesman for the US attorney in Washington, said prosecutors were reviewing the opinion.