Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET
A federal appeals court has thrown out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three others to be resentenced in connection with the 2007 massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. The high-profile incident called into question the role played by U.S. security contractors in Iraq.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said Friday that Nicholas Slatten, who was convicted in 2014 of first-degree murder and later sentenced to life in prison, should be allowed a new trial. The judges said that Slatten, who was the only defendant charged with murder, should have been tried separately and that a new trial would allow him to introduce evidence that he wasn't the first to open fire.
Separately, the judges also ordered the resentencing of Slatten's former Blackwater colleagues Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, who had each been serving 30 years on manslaughter and weapons charges. In a split ruling, the judges found the length of those sentences constituted "cruel and unusual punishment."
On Sept. 16, 2007, the guards opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing the 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 17 others. Prosecutors have described the episode as an ambush of innocent civilians; however, defense attorneys said at trial that the killings occurred as the Blackwater guards returned fire from Iraqi insurgents, although there was no witness testimony to support that claim at trial.
Slatten was convicted of murdering the driver of a white Kia that was stopped in the square. The court's opinion states, "The government's case against Slatten hinged on his having fired the first shots, his animosity toward the Iraqis having led him to target the white Kia unprovoked."
However, the court said that one of Slatten's co-defendants, who is not named, had said in an earlier statement that he had been the first to "engage and hit the driver." The judges said that if Slatten had been tried separately, the co-defendant who claims to have fired first could have been called as a witness in Slatten's defense.
The latest ruling by the appeals court adds another twist in what has become a protracted and meandering legal saga. The four were originally charged in 2008, but the case was thrown out after prosecutors relied on statements that the guards gave believing they would not be used in court. A federal appeals court revived the case in 2013, and the four men were convicted by a jury the following year.
At the time of the shootings, Blackwater Worldwide was a leading contractor for the U.S. State Department in Iraq.
Blackwater Worldwide — whose founder and former CEO Erik Prince is the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — has since changed its name to Xe Services and later to Academi.
The Military Times reported Thursday that Prince has submitted a proposal to the Afghan government to bolster the country's air war against the Taliban by providing it with private combat air wing.