The five Blackwater Worldwide guards indicted in a deadly 2007 Baghdad shooting are all military veterans who have served in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.
Defense lawyers say the case unfairly has tarnished the images of the Blackwater guards. Each man has received honors for his service in Bosnia and Afghanistan to Iraq.
The five were to surrender to the FBI on Monday, when the Justice Department plans to unseal the charges against them in the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad intersection on Sept. 16, 2007. Iraqis hope the charges will bring justice and improve relations with the U.S. after the slayings.
“These are indictments that never should have been brought,” said Mark Hulkower, a lawyer for Army veteran Paul Slough of Keller, Texas. “Paul Slough has served his country honorably for many years and has done nothing wrong. I look forward to clearing his name.”
Attorney David Schertler, who represents former Marine Dustin Heard, of Knoxville, Tenn., said the guards “were defending themselves and their comrades who were being shot at and receiving fire from Iraqis they believed to be enemy insurgents.”
According to their lawyers, the other men charged are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; and Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.
A sixth suspect was in negotiations to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his cooperation against his former colleagues. Documents related to that matter remain sealed as well.
Iraqis said Saturday that they looked forward to the trial.
“I think it is a move in the right direction to make the security-company employees realize that they are no longer above the law and they should stop behaving like cowboys on the streets of Baghdad,” said Mohammed Latif, 52, a retired police officer.
He said he hoped the indictments were not just “an act of propaganda.”
An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Baghdad welcomed any attempt to “hold the criminals accountable for their crime.” He said the Iraqi government has hired lawyers to seek money for the families of the victims.
The five men have been under investigation since a convoy of heavily armed Blackwater contractors opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. The dead included children.
Witnesses say the shooting was unprovoked. But Blackwater, hired by the State Department to guard U.S. diplomats, says its guards were responding to a car bombing and were ambushed by insurgents.
Among the hurdles the government now faces:
• Whether U.S. law permits civilian contractors to be charged in the U.S. for crimes committed overseas. Prosecutors must convince a judge that the guards can be charged under a law targeting soldiers and military contractors - even though Blackwater works for the State Department.
• Convincing a jury that a drug law intended to crack down on assault weapons should be used to pump up potential penalties against the guards. The five men are expected to be charged with assault or manslaughter under a provision in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that requires 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes, whether drug-related or not.
• Proving that prosecutors did not rely on protected statements the guards gave to State Department investigators within hours of the shooting. The State Department gave limited immunity to all the guards in the four-car convoy, promising not to prosecute them based on the initial statements recounting how the violence began.
Legal complications resulting from the immunity agreements also delayed the FBI investigation. Taken together, the missteps left national security prosecutors with a crime scene long cold and with limited forensic evidence to bolster their case.
Since then, the Justice Department has relied on witnesses to the shootings and relatives of the civilian victims in trying to persuade the grand jury to indict. Several Blackwater guards who were in the convoy were ordered to testify against their colleagues.