By Spencer S. Hsu
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 case.
The September 2007 shootings fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq War.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit panel ruled that the trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tennessee, to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, even though he alone faced a murder charge for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.
In a split ruling, the court also found the 30-year terms of the three others who had been convicted of manslaughter – Paul Slough, 37, of Keller, Texas; Evan Liberty, 34, of Rochester, New Hampshire; and Dustin Heard, 35, of Maryville, Tennessee – violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
They received 30 years because the men were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that has primarily been aimed at gang members and never before against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.
Lawyers for the four men were not immediately available for comment.
It could not immediately be determined if Slatten would be retried. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips said the office “is reviewing the opinion and has no further comment at this time.”
The four security guards opened fire on the Iraqis, including women and children, at Nisour Square.
Prosecutors said the four defendants, among 19 Blackwater guards providing security for State Department officials in Iraq, fired machine guns and grenade launchers in a reckless and out-of-control way after one of them falsely claimed their convoy, called Raven 23, was threatened by a car bomber.
The guards said that they acted in self-defense after coming under AK-47 gunfire as they cleared a path back to the nearby Green Zone for another Blackwater team that was evacuating a U.S. official from a nearby car bombing.
During the 10-week trial in 2014, no witness testified they saw the guards come under fire, nor was evidence found that AK-47 rifles carried by Iraqi…