January 2015 Legal Report
A verdict on four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards, Australia passes legislation to increase the powers of the nation's intelligence community, and more legal and legislative news.
U.S. Judicial Decisions
Security officers. A federal jury convicted and immediately jailed four former Blackwater Worldwide security officers in October for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqis and injured 17 in Baghdad. Despite the defense's claims, the jury found that the deaths were not the result of a battlefield tragedy, but 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.
Blackwater was hired by the U.S. State Department in the 2000s to protect American diplomats in Baghdad and other locations in 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 said they fired machine guns and grenade launchers thinking they were being ambushed by insurgents, resulting in the deaths and injuries. None of the victims were later determined to be insurgents, and Blackwater's actions were met with harsh criticism, straining Iraqi-U.S. relations.
The United States eventually brought charges against six Blackwater employees involved in the shooting, including the four security officers, 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 against 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 reversed the judge's decision, and the case against Slatten, Slough, Liberty, and Heard came 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. Numerous witnesses from Iraq traveled to the United States to testify in the trial, painting a gruesome picture of the incident. Former Blackwater contractors who were in the square that day also testified. These testimonies were crucial to the prosecution since 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. However, the defense was unable to convince the jury, which found all men guilty of their charges.
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. They are expected to appeal. A date has not been set for their sentencing. (United States v. Nicholas Slatten, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 1:14-cr-107, 2014; United States v. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 1:08-cr-00360, 2014)
Religious freedom. A man does not have to answer questions in a sworn testimony as part of a labor investigation if answering the questions violates his religious beliefs, a federal district court has ruled. The ruling stems from an investigation into potential child labor violations by Paragon Contractors when hundreds of children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) were seen harvesting pecans at a ranch in Hurricane, Utah.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) took action against Paragon, maintaining that FLDS leaders ordered the children to leave school and work in the fields. As part of the trial, Vernon Steed—an FLDS member took the stand. However, he refused to answer questions about the internal affairs and organization of the FLDS, invoking the First Amendment.
Steed's lawyer said that he objected to the line of questioning because he "retains a closely held religious belief that requires him not to speak openly about matters regarding the church organization with anyone outside of his religious affiliation."
Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furse issued a recommendation, compelling Steed to answer the line of questioning, but he appealed the order, which went to the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.
In his appeal, Steed held that he did not have to answer questions about the FLDS because he is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The court ruled in his favor and said that it was "clear that Mr. Steed has raised the very defenses available under RFRA," Judge David Sam wrote in the court's opinion.
"The determination of what is a 'religious' belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task," the court's opinion said. "However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection." (Perez v. Paragon Contractors, Corp., U.S. District Court for the District of Utah Central Division, No. 2:13CV00281-DS, 2014)
Workplace Safety. A new U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule went into effect on January 1, requiring companies to notify the agency if an employee is hospitalized for an injury or suffers an amputation or loss of an eye at work.
The rule updates the previous policy, which required employers to notify OSHA only in instances when a work accident killed a worker or hospitalized at least three employees. Employers will now have to notify OSHA of work- related fatalities within eight hours and work-related in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, or eye loss within 24 hours.
Biological threats. President Barack Obama signed an executive order that requires the federal government to create a national plan to fight antibiotic-resistant germs. The program will include plans to prevent the spread of resistant bacteria; strengthen national efforts to identify instances of antibiotic resistance; develop new antibiotics, therapies, and vaccines; and improve international collaboration on the issue.
The executive order also creates a government task force and presidential advisory council on how to tackle antibiotic-resistant germs, which have been linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the United States annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Corruption. Ukraine has enacted a new law that will allow for the removal of government officials and screening of approximately one million civil servants in an effort to root out corrupt practices.
The law, referred to as the Lustration Law, will specifically focus on officials who worked under former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted from power following mass protests in the country. It will bar corrupt Ukrainian officials from public office or positions in the bureaucracy.
As part of the process of removing officials, all politicians, officials, police officers, and judges in Ukraine will be investigated to determine the origin of their personal property. Individuals who can't account for their assets, or those of their families, will not be allowed to hold office. Additionally, former KGB officers, former students at KGB schools, and former members of the Komsomol and Communist Party of the Soviet Union will be barred from office.
Intelligence. Australia's Parliament has passed legislation that amends the framework that governs the activities of the Australian Intelligence Community to allow agencies to better respond to current and emerging threats to Australia's national security.
The bill (No. 1) improves the intelligence community's collection powers by allowing it to obtain intelligence from numerous computers—including computer networks—under a single warrant. It also allows the government to use third-party computers and communications in transit to gain access to a target computer under a warrant.
Along with increased computer access, the bill allows a government minister to authorize intelligence gathering on an Australian person who is, or is likely to be, involved in activities that pose a risk to the operational security of the country.