Part of the reason behind the length of their sentences was that they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony…yet were armed by the United States Government.
On Friday, a federal appeals court overturned the prison sentences of three former Blackwater contractors and ordered a new trial for a fourth. The four men had been convicted for manslaughter and other weapons related charges for the shooting and wounding of 31 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The incident occurred in a crowded traffic circle in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Even though John Patarini, one of the FBI agents assigned to investigate the case, referred to the shooting as “the My Lai massacre of Iraq,” the criminal case was marred from the beginning by government mistakes and incompetence.
Here is what is indisputable about the events of September 16, 2007: after a car bomb went off in Baghdad, a Blackwater team named Raven 23 was dispatched to provide evacuation support. While en route, the convoy was directed to a busy traffic circle in Nisour Square, where they set up a traffic control point.
Shortly after arriving, the convoy opened up with machine gun fire and grenades. Raven 23 insisted they were under attack; the prosecution claimed that they were firing indiscriminately and there was no threat. Regardless of the reasoning behind the gunfire, at the end of the shooting 17 people were dead.
Five Blackwater contractors were indicted and another entered a plea deal in which he agreed to testify against his team mates. However, one of the cases was quickly dropped due to a lack of evidence of any crime. Another case was dismissed by a judge, due to the prosecution allowing the statute of limitations to expire. The prosecution then doubled down and charged this contractor with first degree murder.
This man, Nicholas Slatten, was alleged to have fired the first shot during the Nisour Square incident. It was his conviction that was vacated on Friday, with a new trial ordered. He had been sentenced to life in prison, but the US Court of Appeals ruled that the district court had “abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants.”
The court also ruled that the sentences of the other men convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter violated the constitution and met the standards of cruel and unusual punishment. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard had been sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 3o years in prison.
Part of the reason behind the length of their sentences was that they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony. This law was designed to prosecute gang members, not military contractors that had been armed by the United States government.
Blackwater has changed ownership, as well as undergone name changes multiple times since the incident in Baghdad. The Pentagon reduced the employment of contractors down range, but there are an estimated 23,000 contractors in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq still employed.
The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is still providing private military contractors throughout the world and to a wide variety of countries. He has reportedly been advising President Trump to rely more on contractors in Afghanistan, rather than United States service members.