A federal Appeals Court on Friday threw out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three of his former colleagues to be re-sentenced in the high-profile prosecution stemming from the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered a new trial after tossing out the murder conviction of former security contractor Nicholas Slatten, who had been sentenced to life.
The court said Slatten should have had a separate trial instead of being tried alongside his former colleagues. At a new trial, Slatten would be able to introduce evidence that he did not fire the first shot.
Separately, the court said Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, who were all convicted of manslaughter and other offences over their respective roles in the incident, should be resentenced because their 30-year prison terms were “grossly disproportionate to their culpability for using government-issued weapons in a war zone.”
Sentences of 30 years are mandatory because of a law aimed at people who intentionally bring dangerous weapons to carry out violent crimes. The court ruled prosecutors misapplied the law.
The court also threw out one of Liberty’s convictions for attempted manslaughter.
The Sept. 16, 2007, incident stood out for its brazenness and formed a tense backdrop to talks between Washington and Baghdad over the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. It also sparked debate over the role of private security contractors working for the U.S. government in war zones.
The four guards opened fire on the Iraqis, including women and children, at Nisur Square with machine guns and grenade launchers. A heavily armed, four-truck Blackwater Worldwide convoy the men were in had been trying to clear a path for U.S. diplomats.
In addition to the 14 dead, another 17 Iraqis were wounded.
All four men were convicted in October 2014. Slatten had been sentenced to life in prison. Following the incident, North Carolina-based Blackwater was sold and renamed several times. What remains of the company is now called Academi and is based in northern Virginia.
Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who is the younger brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, is currently an informal adviser to Donald Trump and has argued for the use of private military units in Afghanistan as the administration mulls its military options there.