Wild, unprovoked gunfire and grenades killed 14 innocent Iraqis and hurt dozens more in a 2007 Baghdad attack, prosecutors said Monday in announcing charges with mandatory 30-year prison terms against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards.
The Justice Department called the shooting a shocking and devastating violation of human rights. The harsh words echoed the outrage of Iraqis, who have waited more than a year to see how the U.S. would respond to the shooting on a busy street in the Iraqi capital.
The shooting by the largest U.S. security contractor in Iraq sparked international condemnation, launched congressional hearings and inspired anti-American insurgent propaganda.
All surrender in Utah
The five security guards — all decorated military veterans — surrendered in federal court in Utah, where one of them lives. The five guards walked wordlessly through a phalanx of reporters. A judge ordered the guards to report to a Washington courthouse Jan. 6, where they were expected to plead not guilty.
A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another.
"None of the victims of this shooting was armed. None of them was an insurgent," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said at a Justice Department news conference in Washington to announce the charges.
Prosecutors said the slain included young children, women, people fleeing in cars and a man whose arms were raised in surrender as he was shot in the chest.
Twenty others were wounded in crowded Nisoor Square, including one injured by a grenade launched into a nearby girls' school. Another 18 Iraqis were assaulted but not wounded, prosecutors said.
Blackwater, which was not charged in the case, maintains its guards were protecting themselves from what they believed was an imminent car bomb attack.
"We think it's pure and simple a case of self-defense," defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday as the guards were being booked. "Tragically, people did die."
In all, 17 Iraqis were killed in the assault. But Assistant Attorney General Patrick Rowan said evidence in the case could only prove the guards shot 14, although he left open the possibility of future charges.
The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. The machine gun charge, typically used in drug cases, carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.
The guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
Defense lawyers say the case has unfairly tarnished the images of the Blackwater guards. Each man has received honors for his service in some of the world's most dangerous places, from Bosnia and Afghanistan to Iraq.
The sixth guard, who is cooperating with the government, is Jeremy Ridgeway of California. He pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting. In his plea agreement with prosecutors, Ridgeway admitted there was no threat from a white Kia sedan whose driver, a medical student, was killed and his mother, in the front passenger seat, was injured.
Civilians running errands, getting lunch
The shooting took place around noon on Sept. 16, 2007, in a crowded square where prosecutors said civilians were running errands, getting lunch and otherwise going about their lives.
Following a car bombing elsewhere in the city, the heavily armed Blackwater convoy sought to shut down an intersection. Prosecutors said the convoy, known by the call sign Raven 23, had violated an order not to leave the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
Witnesses said the contractors opened fire unprovoked, and left the square littered with blown-out cars.
Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old electrician who said his father, Ibrahim Abid, 78, died in the shooting, welcomed the charges.
"The killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians, Ibrahim said in Iraq. "Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in. We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting will not bring my father to life, but we will have peace in our minds and hearts."
Drama is far from over
But the drama is far from over. After more than a year of investigative missteps and fierce debate, the Justice Department now faces stiff challenges to the evidence and legal grounds at the heart of its case.
Most importantly, prosecutors must prove they did not rely on protected statements the guards gave to State Department investigators within hours of the shootings.
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. The move left Justice Department and FBI investigators with a crime scene long gone cold and with limited forensic evidence to bolster their case.
"We fully expect that the defendants will raise the issue," Rowan said. "We've been very careful and very painstaking in the way we have investigated this case, the way we have assembled evidence. And we fully expect to prevail when the court hears that issue."
Defense attorneys also will argue that the guards cannot be charged under a law intended to cover soldiers and military contractors since the men worked as civilian contractors for the State Department. Rowan, however, said Blackwater was supporting the military's mission in Baghdad and the law therefore applies to them.
It is the first time prosecutors have used that argument to prosecute contractors. The Justice Department recently lost a somewhat similar case against former Marine Jose Luis Nazario Jr., who was charged in Riverside, Calif., with killing four unarmed Iraqi detainees.
The Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater said it stands behind the guards despite being "extremely disappointed and surprised" that one had pleaded guilty.