Four former Blackwater security guards were given lengthy sentences on Monday for the September 2007 shooting that left 14 Iraqis dead and more than 20 wounded, but many issues raised by the case are far from being resolved. A federal judge sentenced Nicholas Slatten, 31, who was convicted of murder, to life in prison for being the first to open fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. His former colleagues, Paul Slough, 35, Evan Liberty, 32, and Dustin Heard, 33, were given 30-year sentences for multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.
Prior to sentencing, each insisted they were acting in self-defense in a war zone, where they were tasked with protecting U.S. interests. “I am very sorry for the loss of life,” Heard said. “But I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I believe I did anything wrong.” Slough added, “I know for a fact that I will be exonerated, in this life and the next.”
At the time of the shooting, the men were trying to clear the way for U.S. diplomats. The defense argued that the the four-truck convoy fired machine guns and grenade launchers at unarmed Iraqis because they believed one of the cars in Nisour Square contained a bomb. The case became the prime example of the consequences of the U.S. government’s reliance on private contractors. As more reports emerged of brazenly unlawful behavior by Blackwater employees, the company was sold and renamed several times and is now known as Academi.
District Court Judge Royce Lamberth agreed with the defendants’ assessment, to some extent. He said he believed they were guilty, noting that there was no evidence or eyewitness testimony that suggested the men were under fire from insurgents. But he also said he was impressed by the “outpouring” of support from their friends and family, and got choked up at one point. “It is clear these fine young men just panicked,” Lamberth said. “The overall, wild, thing that went on here can just not be condoned by a court … A court has to recognize the severity of the crimes committed, including the number of victims.”
Prosecutors had sought prison sentences of 47 to 57 years, and 30 years was the mandatory minimum they faced after being convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony. According to The Wall Street Journal, the defense argued that the law was aimed at drug dealers and gangsters, not U.S. security contractors. That’s likely to be one of the issues raised when the men appeal what one called a “perversion of justice.”