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Blackwater guards set Utah for surrender

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Five Blackwater Worldwide security guards indicted in Washington for the 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians plan to surrender to the federal authorities Monday in Utah, people close to the case said, setting up a court fight over the trial site.

The case already is shaping up to be a series of contentious legal battles before the guards even can go to trial. By surrendering in Utah, the home state of one of the guards, the men could argue that the case should be heard in a far more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington, about 2,000 miles away.

The five guards, all military veterans, were indicted on manslaughter charges for their roles in shootings in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. A sixth guard reached a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid a mandatory 30-year prison sentence.

The people who spoke to the Associated Press did so on the condition of anonymity because the indictment and plea documents remain sealed.

The shooting strained U.S. diplomacy and fueled anti-American sentiment abroad. The Iraqi government has urged the U.S. to prosecute the guards and cheered news of the indictments.

Steven McCool, an attorney for Blackwater guard and Marine veteran Donald Ball, confirmed Sunday that his client would surrender in Utah. Mr. Ball, a veteran of three tours in Iraq before joining Blackwater, is from West Valley, Utah.

"Donald Ball committed no crime," Mr. McCool said. "We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government."

The other guards indicted are Dustin Heard, a Marine veteran from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a Marine veteran from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.

It's not uncommon for lawyers to try to get their cases in front of favorable juries, but often it is difficult in criminal cases. Republican Sen. Ted Stevens unsuccessfully tried to move his recent corruption trial to his home state, Alaska, from Washington.

The five men were scheduled to surrender to federal marshals in Utah, where they were expected to ask a federal judge to keep the case from moving to Washington.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that crimes committed overseas are normally charged in Washington. They also can argue that documents related to the sixth guard's plea deal already have been filed in Washington.

The Justice Department has not commented on the case.

In addition to manslaughter charges, prosecutors also plan to use an aggressive law calling for mandatory 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes.

The Blackwater guards, hired by the U.S. to guard State Department diplomats in Iraq, carry automatic weapons and drive heavily armored vehicles equipped with turret guns.

The shooting at the heart of the case involved a convoy of those vehicles responding to a car bombing in downtown Baghdad. Entering a busy traffic circle, the convoy opened fire. Witnesses said Blackwater was unprovoked. The company says its guards were ambushed.

By the time the shooting stopped, 17 Iraqis, including children, were dead and Nisoor Square was a mess of blown-out cars.