The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ordered a new trial for former security contractor Nicholas Slatten who was charged with the murders of several Iraqis in a shooting along with three of his former colleagues. A massacre of fourteen unarmed Iraqi civilians occurred at a Baghdad traffic circle on September 16, 2007. 33-year-old Slatten, a contractor from Tennessee, was the sniper on a team protecting state department officials. During his trial, prosecutors alleged Slatten felt the murders were “payback for 9/11.”
The panel agreed that Slatten should have a separate trial for the shooting instead of being tried alongside his former colleague where he’d get a chance to present evidence that another defendant fired the first shot. This is because the basis of his initial conviction rested on the allegation that he had fired first when this wasn’t the case.
Defendants Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough, all convicted of manslaughter and other offenses over their roles in the shooting, were also ordered to be re-sentenced. The court felt their 30-year terms were too long and the sentences violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. One of Liberty’s convictions for attempted manslaughter was thrown out.
The day of the attack, the men were riding in an armed, four-truck Blackwater Worldwide convoy attempting to clear a path for United States’ diplomats after a car bomb went off. Four guards opened fire at the Nisur Square traffic circle, targeting Iraqi civilizations, including women and children. In addition to fourteen who lost their lives, seventeen others were wounded in the gunfire. Slatten was convicted specifically in the killing a driver of a Kia who happened to be stopped at the traffic circle.
The judges, in the revised decision, indicated there was still no excuse for the killings, that they “def[y] civilized description”, adding, “In reaching this conclusion, we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty’s actions. Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.” However, they decided the case “hinged on [Slatten] having fired the first shots, his animosity toward the Iraqis having led him to target the white Kia unprovoked” and the court determined the statements made by Slatten’s co-defendant that he fired the first shot “strike at the heart of that theory and instead point to the co-defendant, not Slatten.”
The defendants were originally convicted in October 2014 and Slatten was sentenced to life in prison. A sentencing memorandum filed in April 2015 said: “None of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat to the Raven 23 convoy.” The document also included a quote from David Boslego, a retired US army colonel, calling the massacre “a grossly excessive use of force … grossly inappropriate for an entity whose only job was to provide personal protection to somebody in an armored vehicle”.
Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has since been sold and is now known as Academi after it had also briefly operated under the name Xe Services.