In an about face, a U.S. court of appeals remanded a lower court ruling and will grant a new trial for a former Blackwater Worldwide Security guard convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that lower court Judge Royce Lamberth should not have barred a statement during Nicholas Slatten’s original trial by his codefendent that Slatten did not fire the first shot in what came to be known as the Nisur Square massacre.
The statement, the court of appeals said, should have been allowed and Slatten should have been tried separately from his three codefendants—Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard, also former Blackwater security guards.
Instead, they were tried together and Slough, Liberty, and Heard were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Slatten was convicted of first degree murder.
Slatten was sentenced to life in prison, and Slough, Liberty, and Heard were sentenced to a mandatory-minimum of 30 years in prison.
Slatten appealed the ruling, and through the court process his case reached the appellate court, where he challenged the lower court’s decision not to sever his trial from that of a codefendant.
“Slatten argued for severance because he sought to introduce exculpatory evidence—the codefendant’s admission that he, not Slatten, initiated the Nisur Square attack by firing on the white Kia—evidence inadmissible in a joint trial with a codefendant,” the appellate court wrote in its opinion.
The district court denied Slatten’s request, which the appellate court said was wrong.
“Because the codefendant’s admissions were vital to Slatten’s defense and possessed sufficient circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, we believe they were admissible,” the appellate court explained. “Accordingly, because the district court erroneously denied severance, we reverse Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction…and remand his case for a new trial.”
The appellate court also ruled that the 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for Slough, Liberty, and Heard violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It remanded their cases for resentencing.
“The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives,” the appellate court explained.
“We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.”
The four men were contracted through Blackwater in 2007 to provide security for the U.S. Department of State in in Baghdad. While out on patrol in response to a car bombing, prosecutors accused the defendants of going on a shooting spree that killed 14 people and injured 17. The defense, however, argued that the Blackwater guards feared they were under attack and fired in self-defense.
The case garnered worldwide attention and was closely followed by both U.S. and Iraqi leaders. No date for Slatten’s new trial or the other defendants’ re-sentencing has been set.