Murder conviction in Blackwater case thrown out, other sentences overturned

Blackwater Worldwide security guards Evan Liberty left and Dustin Heard right were convicted of manslaughter in 2014 in the 2007 shooting deaths of Iraqi citizens in Baghdad. On Friday Aug. 4
Blackwater guard's murder conviction tossed; mandatory sentences for others found unconstitutional

05 August, 2017

A U.S. appeals court has overturned a murder conviction for a former Blackwater security guard over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

The court said Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, who were all convicted of manslaughter and other offences over their respective roles in the incident, should be re-sentenced because their 30-year prison terms were too long.

Slatten, a 33-year-old contractor from Tennessee who was the sniper on a team protecting state department officials, is serving a life sentence.

In a split opinion, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit ruled a lower court erred by not allowing Nicholas Slatten to be tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014.

"The court concludes that the imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum... violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment...."

The lawyers for the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.

In overturning the 30-year terms, USA circuit judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and Janice Rogers Brown wrote "we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty's actions".

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The 2007 massacre took place at a Baghdad traffic circle, where the four guards opened fire on unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, killing 14 people and leaving 17 others wounded. But instead of using a "sledgehammer", they said the sentencing judge - U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District - should instead tailor more "nuanced" penalties based on each defendant's wrongdoing.

The guards claimed they were defending themselves after being shot at.

The guards said that they acted in self-defense after coming under AK-47 gunfire as they cleared a path back to the nearby Green Zone for another Blackwater team that was evacuating a USA official from a nearby vehicle bombing.

The judges also threw out one of Liberty's convictions for attempted manslaughter.

In February 2016, Slatten, Slough, Liberty and Heard - appealed their convictions, saying a key witness against them had changed his testimony after the trial and that prosecutors lacked jurisdiction to even bring the case. The 33-year-old contractor from Tennessee is serving a life sentence for his role in the killings, which strained global relations and drew intense scrutiny of the role of American contractors in the Iraq War.

Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of Blackwater, is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

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