Appeals court overturns Blackwater guard murder conviction, orders new trial

Appeals court overturns Blackwater guard murder conviction, orders new trial
The murder conviction of a former Blackwater security guard was thrown out by a Washington DC appeals court as it is seeking a new trial. The conviction stemmed from the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

The US Court of Appeals in the DC circuit found the court “abused its discretion” in denying Nicholas Slatten’s motion to be tried separately from his co-defendants and “therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial,” the court opinion stated Friday, according to BuzzFeed.

Slatten was charged and convicted for being involved in the September 16, 2007 massacre when private security contractors – hired by Blackwater and working for the US government – opened fire at a busy traffic circle, in Nisour Square, Baghdad, leaving more than a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and 17 others wounded. Slattern had been sentenced to life in prison.

Blackwater guards had been dispatched to the square to secure a safe route for a US official after a car bomb went off in Baghdad. Guards claimed the convoy was ambushed and they fired in defense of the convoy. The Iraqi government and Iraqi police investigator stated the killings were unprovoked. The next day Blackwater Worldwide’s license to operate in Iraq was temporarily revoked.

The appeals court found evidence, submitted by a co-defendant, that Slattern did not fire the first shot to be admissible.

In a split ruling, the court said three other guards – Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty – who were all convicted of manslaughter over their role in the incident should be re-sentenced because their 30-year prison terms were too long and violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to the Washington Post.

The four guards were convicted in 2015 of manslaughter and Slattern for first-degree murder for the 2007 shootings. They were charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows the US government to prosecute individuals for alleged criminal activity overseas who are employed by or otherwise supporting the armed forces.

All the men have been challenging their sentencing for years.

In January, a federal appeals court in Washington heard arguments on the guard’s challenge to their convictions. Defense lawyers argued over whether federal law permitted prosecutors to charge the guards for their conduct abroad, and if it did, whether the trial should have taken place in Washington, DC as opposed to Utah where the guards were arrested.

Slattern’s lawyer contended the evidence presented by the prosecution at trial didn’t support the more serious charge he faced, and that he was a victim of vindictive prosecution.

The appeals court also found Slattern’s indictment did not constitute vindictive prosecution.

Blackwater, the private military company, secured a contracting bonanza that ensued after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Operating as part of the US occupational authorities, Blackwater members gained notoriety due to misbehavior, security flaws and discipline problems.

A former Navy SEAL, its CEO Erik Prince sold off his stake at Blackwater in 2010 following the year-long controversy over the company’s operations in Iraq.

Four years later, in 2014, he founded the FSG in Hong Kong, reportedly receiving help from Chinese intelligence to create a Bank of China account for his overseas activities, according to the Intercept. 

Blackwater has since rebranded itself as Academi. In recent weeks, Prince has reportedly urged Trump to appoint a US “viceroy” to win the war in Afghanistan and offered the services of a private air force to the government in Kabul.