In Blackwater Case, Court Rejects a Murder Conviction and Voids 3 Sentences

The Nisour Square shooting forced a reconsideration of America’s reliance on contractors in war zones.

Until then, no security contractor was more powerful than Blackwater in the post-Sept. 11 conflicts. Its employees protected American diplomats overseas and worked alongside C.I.A. officers in clandestine counterterrorism operations. The company won more than $1 billion in contracts. Its founder, Erik Prince, has advised the Trump administration, encouraging it to use more private contractors in Afghanistan.

The machine-gun charge in the Iraq case was always contentious, even inside the Justice Department.

Agents had pushed hard to include the charges. “How do we go back there, and face a room full of crippled Iraqis and family members of the deceased, and tell them the U.S. D.O.J. decided that they didn’t want to go too hard on the men who shot everyone that day?” John Patarini, an F.B.I. agent wrote in a 2008 email as authorities debated the charges.

The Justice Department ultimately acquiesced, although some prosecutors believed it was unfair to add an extra penalty for using a weapon that the United States government required them to carry.

The appeals court agreed. The three-judge panel ruled that the machine-gun law was intended to punish people who intentionally brought dangerous weapons with them to carry out violent crimes, and declared the contractors’ sentences “grossly disproportionate to their culpability for using government-issued weapons in a war zone.”

The court ordered that three of the contractors be resentenced, a ruling that could significantly reduce their prison terms.

Mr. Slatten’s conviction was thrown out entirely. Prosecutors had successfully argued that he touched off the killings with a precision shot through the head of a driver of a stopped white Kia as the Blackwater convoy moved through the traffic circle. The Justice Department said Mr. Slatten hated Iraqis and opened fire as part of “payback for 9/11.”

But the appeals court ruled that he never should have been prosecuted in the same trial as his colleagues, one of whom said he — and not Mr. Slatten — fired the first shots.

“The government’s case against Slatten hinged on his having fired the first shots, his animosity toward the Iraqis having led him to target the white Kia unprovoked,” the court wrote. “The co-defendant’s statements, however, strike at the heart of that theory.”

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