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5 guards plead not guilty in Iraq killings

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards pleaded not guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington to charges that they killed at least 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007, but they won't go to trial for more than a year.

Each of the military veterans was charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter and one count of discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. The firearms charge alone carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.

"This is indeed a complex case," U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said. Defense attorneys are likely to need "additional time to conduct the searches" for evidence, he said.

Judge Urbina set Jan. 29, 2010, as the date for jury selection to begin and Feb. 1, 2010, for the start of the government's case against the men.

The defendants were identified as Donald Ball, 26, of West Valley, Utah; Dustin L. Heard, 27, of Maryville, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty, 26, of Rochester, N.H.; Nicholas Slatten, 24, of Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas.

None of the five defendants spoke during the arraignment. They were released after the arraignment on personal recognizance. A sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 34, of Fallbrook, Calif., pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter and to attempting to commit manslaughter. He is expected to be a witness against the other guards.

Blackwater Worldwide is a North Carolina-based firm hired by the State Department to protect its personnel in Iraq.

Prosecuting attorney Tim Kohl argued against delays that could make it difficult to gather all the witnesses for a trial.

"This is a straight-forward shooting of a lot of people," he said. He estimated that the government attorneys would need a month to present their case when the trial starts.

"We are anxious to have a trial," said David Schertler, a lawyer for one of the guards. "They are not guilty, and we look forward to proving that in court."

The more-than-year-long delay for the trial is needed because prosecutors have spent nearly the same length of time preparing their case against the Blackwater guards, Mr. Schertler said.

Prosecutors say the five guards unleashed uncontrolled volleys of bullets and grenades in a Baghdad public square. Iraqi-government accounts claim 17 civilians were killed and 20 injured. Three of the defendants are former Marines and two are U.S. Army veterans.

The Blackwater guards say they fired after a State Department convoy they were guarding was attacked by gunmen in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Prosecutors deny the guards were attacked.

The five defendants' security convoy set up a blockade in Nisoor Square after a car-bombing nearby, according to court documents. In what prosecutors say was an unprovoked shooting, they fired first at a civilian car, killing two occupants. They then fired at other motorists and pedestrians who were fleeing, prosecutors say.

The incident created political tensions between the U.S. and the Iraqi government over what some Iraqis say were the unnecessarily violent tendencies of private security guards.