WASHINGTON — A U.S. appeals court on Friday threw out the first-degree murder conviction of a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard sentenced to life in prison in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.
The court also ordered resentencings for three others convicted in the incident.
The September 2007 shootings, which also wounded 17 people, fomented deep resentment about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq War.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the trial court "abused its discretion" in not allowing Nicholas Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the civilian massacre.
In a split ruling, the court also found the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter — Paul Slough, 37, of Keller, Texas; Evan Liberty, 35, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."
They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.
"While we believe at a minimum that Mr. Heard should have been awarded a new trial in this matter, we are gratified that the Court recognized the gross injustice of the 30-year mandatory minimum sentences," Heard's attorney, David Schertler, said in a statement. Attorneys for the three other men did not respond to interview requests.
On social media, a group representing friends and family of the four tweeted, "Not a complete home-run for all 4 men, but it is something."
It could not immediately be determined whether Slatten would be retried. Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. attorney Channing Phillips said Phillips' office "is reviewing the opinion and has no further comment at this time."
The four contractors were convicted of firing wildly into cars stalled in midafternoon traffic at Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007, pouring machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds, including women clutching only purses and children holding their hands in the air.
The U.S. government sought to make amends to its Iraqi allies, but the U.S. refusal to allow the men to be tried in Iraq sent relations between the countries into a crisis, and the Blackwater name became shorthand for unaccountable U.S. power.
In overturning the 30-year terms, Circuit Judges Karen Le-Craft Henderson and Janice Rogers Brown wrote that "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." But they said the sentencing judge — U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth — should tailor more "nuanced" penalties based on each defendant's wrongdoing rather than using a "sledgehammer."
Circuit Judge Judith Rogers disagreed, saying the claim "lacks any merit whatsoever," calling the 30-year terms "appropriate" for the crime and noting that other security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all.