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Federal Jury Finds Blackwater Guards Guilty in 2007 Iraq Killings

A federal jury convicted and immediately jailed four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards yesterday for their roles in a 2007 shooting that injured 17 Iraqis and killed 14 in Baghdad. Despite the defense�s claims, the jury found that the deaths were not the result of a battlefield tragedy, but of a criminal act.

Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder and three other guards�Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard�were found guilty of multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and gun violations. Slatten faced the more serious charge because he fired the first sniper shot in the altercation, the U.S. government said.

�This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,� said Ronald C. Machen, Jr., the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, to The New York Times. �Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. Today, they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families.�

Blackwater was hired by the U.S. State Department to protect American diplomats in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country of Iraq. Convoys of Blackwater guards often patrolled risky areas where car bombs and attacks by insurgents were common.

On September 16, 2007, in Baghdad�s Nisour Square, four Blackwater armored trucks responded to a car bombing. Slatten, Slough, Liberty, and Heard were part of the response and fired machine guns and grenade launchers when they said they were ambushed by insurgents, unintentionally killing 14 people and injuring 17 others. None of the victims were later determined to be insurgents and Blackwater�s actions were met with harsh criticism, adding strain to Iraqi-U.S. relations.

Additional pressure was placed on the United States when Iraqis called for the Blackwater guards to be tried in their nation�s court system following the incident. There were also allegations that the U.S. State Department tried to cover-up the incident after it cleaned up the scene in Nisour Square prior to an investigation, gathering shell casings, and giving Blackwater limited immunity.

The United States eventually brought charges against six Blackwater employees involved in the shooting, including the four security guards, in 2008. One of the employees�Jeremy Ridgeway�pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified in the 2014 trial on behalf of the prosecution, and charges for another employee were later dropped.

However, in 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictments against the remaining four guards, saying prosecutors improperly relied on statements the guards gave the State Department after the shooting. The judge said these statements could not be used in court because the guards spoke to the department without realizing those statements could be used against them in a judicial setting.

After much deliberation, an appeals court later reversed the judge�s decision and the case against Slatten, Slough, Liberty, and Heard was allowed to move forward, coming to trial earlier this year.

In its prosecution, the U.S. government argued that the guards had shown �a grave indifference� to the consequences their actions would cause and alleged that some of the Blackwater guards had low regard and deep hostility toward Iraqi civilians. Numerous witnesses from Iraq also traveled to the United States to testify in the trial, painting a gruesome picture of the shooting incident.

Former Blackwater contractors who were part of the convoy in the square that day also testified, saying the shooting was �the most horrible, botched thing I�ve ever seen in my life,� according to one individual who took the stand. These testimonies were crucial to the prosecution as there was little forensic evidence and no ballistics linking any gunman to any specific victim.

In contrast, the defense continued to argue that insurgents ambushed the convoy and the civilian deaths were unavoidable consequences of urban warfare. �Nick Slatten is innocent,� his lawyer, Thomas Connolly, said to the Times after the verdicts were announced. �We�re disappointed that the jury found otherwise, but the jury�s verdict does not change the reality of what happened�and what didn�t happen�in Nisour Square.�

Slatten could face a maximum penalty of life in prison, and the other three men could face multiple decades behind bars. After the verdict was read, all four were immediately sent to jail, although they are expected to appeal and defense lawyers plan to ask the court to let them out of jail while the appeal plays out. A date has not been set for their sentencing.