Murder Trial Of Blackwater Guard Ends In Mistrial

Sep 14, 2018
Originally published on September 14, 2018 11:02 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The private military contractor Blackwater changed its name years ago after the name became virtually synonymous for reckless mercenary gunmen. Iraqis, Afghans and often U.S. soldiers considered Blackwater to be accountable to no one - except one time, when four Blackwater guards were prosecuted for a massacre in Iraq. Now, after 11 years of proceedings, the sentences from that trial may be drastically reduced.

Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Even in a violent war zone, the killings in Nisour Square in Baghdad stood out. A State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater gunmen approached a traffic circle on September 16, 2007.

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ALI KHALAF SALMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: A traffic cop, Ali Khalaf Salman, was at the square. NPR aired this interview back in 2007.

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SALMAN: (Speaking through interpreter) He was big.

LAWRENCE: Salman said an American shot the young driver of a white sedan. Salman rushed toward the man and his mother, who was clinging to her son.

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SALMAN: (Speaking through interpreter) He raised his hand to stop the shooting. This time, the man shot the mother dead.

LAWRENCE: Then more Blackwater guards, machine gun cars and a passenger bus and fleeing civilians. Fourteen Iraqis died, including two women and two boys under 12. Eighteen others were wounded. No evidence the American convoy ever took hostile fire. And Sarah Leah Whitson with Human Rights Watch says it wasn't the first time Blackwater had been accused.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Blackwater's own study in 2005 documented that they had been involved in 195 shootings in Iraq and that they had fired first on Iraqis in 160 cases.

LAWRENCE: Against the wishes of the Iraqi government, the contractors were flown home to the U.S. to face trial. At first, a judge dismissed the case, saying the Justice Department had mishandled the evidence. It took until 2014 for a retrial to sentence three men to 30 years in prison for manslaughter and a fourth, Nicholas Slatten, to life in prison for murder. Whitson says that showed that private military contractors could be held accountable.

WHITSON: I think it sends an important message that, while the American justice system was slow, it delivered.

LAWRENCE: But last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered another trial, saying the 30-year sentences were unconstitutionally harsh, and Slatten should not have been tried together with the other three. Last week, Slatten's case ended in a mistrial, so that message about accountability for military contractors is in doubt, says former Army colonel Isaiah Wilson. And he says that undermines the credibility of even uniformed American soldiers.

ISAIAH WILSON: Because it at least grays out or muddies the differentiation between legitimate combatant and illegitimate combatant.

LAWRENCE: All that may be true. But defense attorney Bill Coffield says it's got nothing to do with his client.

BILL COFFIELD: I, for the life of me, cannot understand how a juror could follow the instructions that the court gave them and take the evidence that was presented at trial and have found beyond a reasonable doubt that any of these young men were guilty.

LAWRENCE: Coffield represents one of the three contractors charged with manslaughter. Nicholas Slatten's attorney declined comment for this story. Coffield says the men were making split-second decisions when they began shooting at the white sedan, which was not stopping as it approached their convoy.

COFFIELD: Unfortunately, it's a war zone, and terrible things happen in a war zone unintentionally. But giving people due process and being fair to people doesn't mean that it isn't a tragic situation.

LAWRENCE: The men have served four years at this point. Today, they could walk free or start yet another trial in what has been an 11-year process.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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