Judge Blasts U.S. for Blackwater 'Injustice'
(CN) - Four former Blackwater security guards accused of opening fire on Iraqi civilians in 2007 will face trial in June, a federal judge ruled, though he chided the government for its "impropriety" in forcing them to make sworn statements about the incident.
"The court finds it disturbing that it has taken seven years of hard-fought litigation to finally reach the June trial date set in this case," U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., wrote in a redacted opinion released Tuesday. "If the Department of State and Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could hardly have done a better job."
The delay largely stems from statements that the former employees of Blackwater Worldwide (now Academi) were compelled to make following the Sept. 16, 2007 incident in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, Donald Ball and Nicholas Slatten were originally charged with voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations for allegedly opening fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 14 and wounding 20 more.
The government claimed that the shooting was unprovoked, but the former guards said their unit, Raven 23, had been attacked by insurgents.
When Raven 23 returned to the Green Zone, all unit members were compelled to give written statements about the incident to the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. The government guaranteed that the statements would not be used to criminally prosecute them.
Lamberth called the decision to grant immunity "questionable at best."
"It is unclear to the court whether the DSS or the State Department even had the authority to grant immunity to the defendants in exchange for their testimony absent approval from the Attorney General," he wrote.
Nonetheless, the decision unhinged the government's prosecution, as the immunized statements were later leaked to the media.
In June 2010, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the indictments on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.
The D.C. Circuit reinstated the case in April 2011, saying the lower court "made a number of systemic errors based on an erroneous legal analysis."
To avoid any taint on remand, prosecutors last October brought new charges against four of the guards: Slough, Slatten, Liberty and Heard. The superseding indictment charges them with multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and firearms violations.
They moved to dismiss, arguing that the new charges were still tainted by their immunized statements.
Lamberth disagreed and allowed the trial to proceed, but lowered the boom on the government for mishandling the case.
"It is incredible the way these defendants were coerced into making statements to DSS agents," he wrote. "The impropriety of this was well-settled law at the time. Even more egregious, though, was the leaking to the news media of all the statements given. Yet it appears there has been no investigation of these circumstances and no one has been held accountable. Nor is there any reason to think anyone learned a lesson from this fiasco or that any steps have been taken to avoid a repetition."
Lamberth asked federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., to request a full investigation and report by the State Department's Inspector General.
"The injustice done to the alleged victims of this incident by the last seven years of litigation has been totally unwarranted," he wrote.
He indicated there would be another hearing on possibly tainted evidence before or during the trial, which is set to begin June 11.