A contractor working for the Blackwater private security company had his 2015 murder conviction overturned by a federal appeals court.
Nicholas Slatten was a sniper employed by Blackwater in 2007 when he says his convoy came under attack in a busy Iraqi square. He and his comrades opened fire, killing 17 Iraqis. The FBI investigation determined that 14 of the killings were unnecessary.
Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder and three other Blackwater employees were found guilty of manslaughter. Slatten got life in prison while his co-defendants received 30 years. They had their sentences overturned on Eighth Amendment grounds while Slatten was unfairly denied the opportunity to sever his trial from his co-defendants.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday found that “the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial.”
It found that the 30-year terms for the three others “violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” with one of the judges dissenting.
The Nusoor Square shooting exacerbated anger among many Iraqis at the security contractors in their country.
According to prosecutors, the four were among seven Blackwater employees who opened fire in the traffic circle.
An FBI investigation found 14 of the deaths unjustified, according to rules of engagement for private security contractors in Iraq.
Blackwater said its convoy defended itself, but witnesses testified that the contractors opened fire without provocation.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced the four in April 2015.
A federal jury convicted the four the previous October after a lengthy trial that saw some 30 witnesses travel from Iraq to testify against the security contractors.
Prosecutors accused the men of illegally unleashed “powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women and children.”
Was this murder? Blackwater’s contention that the convoy was attacked first was undermined by the military and one of the Blackwater employees who turned state’s evidence. They used grenade launchers in a market crowded with civilians, which was definitely against the rules of engagement adopted by Blackwater. And once the firing started in a war where insurgents and terrorists could easily pass themselves off as civilians, a massacre was probably inevitable.
They charged Slatten with first-degree murder because the Justice Department allowed the statute of limitations to run out on the original charges against him. He will almost certainly be tried again, probably on reduced charges.
There is little doubt that the Blackwater contractors were in the wrong. But this was a politically motivated trial from the start and the excessive charges and sentencing confirm that fact.