A federal judge sentenced four former Blackwater USA security contractors Monday to long prison terms for killing Iraqi civilians in a notorious 2007 incident.
Three of the former Blackwater – now known as Academi – contractors, including one from Keller, received prison sentences of 30 years plus a day after convictions on voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges.
A fourth contractor, former sniper Nicholas A. Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., received a mandatory life sentence for his conviction on one count of first-degree murder.
“The defendants appear to be overall good young men who served their country,” said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, before adding that “there is a serious sentence that needs to be imposed for these killings and woundings.”
Lamberth sentenced Slatten; Dustin L. Heard of Maryville, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; and Paul A. Slough of Keller, after a day of sometimes emotional testimony that highlighted the enduring scars left by the events of Sept. 16, 2007.
That day, a Washington jury concluded in October, the four security contractors killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
“It’s clear that these fine young men just panicked,” said Lamberth, adding that as a result of the trial, “the truth about Nisoor Square was out there for the world to see.”
A 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, Lamberth effectively gave Heard, Liberty and Slough the lowest sentence possible under federal sentencing guidelines. He rejected prosecutors’ request for sentences of up to 57 years for Slough, 51 years for Liberty and 47 years for Heard. Because of mandatory sentencing requirements, Slatten’s life sentence was never really in question.
“What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Patrick Martin. “These men caused massive deaths and destruction.”
But while rejecting prosecutors’ request for longer sentences, Lamberth also denied defense attorneys’ requests that he break the mold of the 30-year term Congress established for the weapons offense. The machine guns and grenade launcher used by the Blackwater men in Nisoor Square were issued by the U.S. government so the contractors could protect State Department employees, defense attorneys noted.
“This was decidedly dangerous and unpredictable,” said Heard’s attorney, David Schertler. “That’s what Iraq was.”
The four defendants, all U.S. military veterans, were part of a Blackwater tactical support team called “Raven 23.” Their job on Sept. 16, 2007, was to back up other Blackwater security details.
Shortly before noon, Raven 23 heard that a vehicle-borne homemade bomb had detonated near where U.S. officials were meeting with Iraqi officials. The Raven 23 convoy subsequently took up positions in Nisoor Square in downtown Baghdad to secure an evacuation route.
According to prosecutors, Raven 23 opened fire on a small car that had approached the intersection, killing the driver. Heavy machine-gun fire continued from the Blackwater convoy, directed at the car, other vehicles and eventually unarmed civilians.