WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge sentenced three former Blackwater security contractors Thursday to more than a decade in prison for their role in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad in which dozens of unarmed Iraqis were gunned down.
Before issuing the sentences, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth read off the total number of victims tied to each co-defendant, in all 27 dead and 39 injured, in the civilian massacre.
In a packed courtroom, Lamberth heard pleas for mercy from family and friends of Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard. The judge later acknowledged the three men – in court wearing orange jumpsuits, their ankles shackled – had exhibited “exemplary” conduct in prison in the five years since their conviction.
But he said there is no question the three men are guilty and must be held accountable for the “death and destruction” they unleashed in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007.
“It was just wild shooting that can never be condoned,” Lamberth said. He sentenced Slough to 15 years, Liberty to 14 years and Heard to just over 12 ½ years.
Thursday was the second time the trio had been sentenced, and the government called for the court to adopt the sentence of 30 years and one day that Lamberth had originally issued. In 2017, the D.C. Circuit ordered resentencing after reversing the conviction of Nicholas Slatten, a fourth member of the Blackwater tactical team Raven 23 tried alongside the three men.
The federal prosecutor argued that a lesser sentence given the gravity of the offense was “grossly inappropriate.”
“It was a one-of-a-kind case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Patrick Martin said. “It should never have happened and should never happen again.”
While the government also argued the contractors never acknowledged guilt, all three men stood before the judge Thursday to say they do regret the innocent lives that were lost.
Hearing their statements, Lamberth noted that he received an unusual flood of letters in support of the defendants’ good character.
“Your honor, those letters you have received do reflect a man who is trying to be an agent of peace and restoration,” Slough said.
The government also repeatedly compared the co-defendants to Slatten – sentenced again by Lamberth last month to life in prison – but the defense argued there was a “world of difference” between the two cases.
Brian Heberlig, defense attorney for Slough, said the government could not suggest a 30-year sentence since the three men had not been prosecuted for first-degree murder as Slatter was.
“They didn’t even have the guts to bring that charge to the jury,” Heberlig said.
But displaying photos of the slain victims, the prosecution described how the defendants shot civilians fleeing in terror to escape the onslaught.
Defense attorney David Schertler objected to the government depicting the men as “depraved killers.”
“It’s clear these young men were panicked,” Schertler said.
“I said that myself,” Lamberth said.
“I know your honor, I was quoting you,” Schertler replied.
But Lamberth noted that among the dead were two women stepping off a bus and a man driving his car away from the attack.
“What happened in Nisour Square defies civilized description,” the judge said quoting the appellate court opinion on the case.
The youngest victim, a nine-year-old boy, died from a gunshot to the head. His father, now residing in Michigan, was present in court listening to an Arabic translation of the proceedings.
“All the money in the world cannot bring him back or bring peace to our souls,” the father wrote in a letter read aloud by the prosecution.