WASHINGTON (CN) – More than 10 years later, details of the fateful day in 2007 when five private security guards fired automatic weapons and grenades at 31 Iraqi civilians are blurry for Jimmy Watson, who now remembers only bits and pieces of how it all unfolded.
Having previously testified in 2014 in the government’s case against four security guards with Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Academi, who were convicted in the shooting of the 14 Iraqi’s who died in the attack, Watson tried to tell his story again Wednesday during a retrial ordered by the D.C. Circuit for Nicholas Slatten.
The government contends that Slatten fired the first shots. A jury convicted him in 2014 of first-degree murder, but a three-judge appeals panel said last year that Slatten should have been allowed to admit testimony from a co-defendant who swore to having fired first. Slatten’s retrial got underway June 28.
Having previously testified to a grand jury about the shooting in March 2013, more than five years later Watson had trouble recalling that testimony and what happened after his tactical support team, Raven 23, defied orders to stay in Baghdad’s green zone and headed toward Nisour Square instead.
As Watson began his testimony Wednesday, he noted that the day of the shooting he was exhausted and in pain from being hit in the leg by grenade shrapnel several days prior.
Shortly before setting out for Nisour Square, he remembered a bomb going off that shook the windows while he was eating ice cream.
“There was an explosion. There was a big boom,” he said. And then the radio went off.
“I don’t remember what was said but we ran to the trucks,” he added.
The team scrambled to clear the way for another Blackwater unit evacuating a U.S. diplomat from a car bombing near Izdihar Compound.
Watson described a chaotic environment and a constant sense of impending death during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war. He also noted that he was wearing a catheter that day because of a crushed penis injury.
Prosecutor T. Patrick Martin asked Watson if he ordered Raven 23 to lock down Nisour Square after receiving an order to do so.
At first, Watson called it hard to say. Then he said, “I think so.”
“Do you accept responsibility for that here today,” Martin asked.
“Yes, sir,” Watson responded.
Martin questioned Watson about whether he remembered Slatten being in the armored vehicle with him, laying down in the back with his sniper rifle pointed out the window.
“I don’t remember him at all,” Watson said. “Just him being back there.” Watson said he would take Martin’s word that Slatten was there. But then Watson said: “He was there for sure.”
Watson however could not remember if Slatten had his sniper rifle out, but surmised he must have since he was a sniper.
Watson recalled being in the armored vehicle in the front passenger seat once they got to Nisour traffic circle with his head down looking at maps and calling for support on the radio.
Martin asked him to describe the first significant thing he heard, and whether he recalled hearing distant pops.
“Just yelling I think. On the radio,” Watson said.
In his prior grand jury testimony, Watson had described all “hell breaking loose.” Martin read the five-year-old testimony back to him, which jogged Watson’s memory.
He notes that he was already wounded, and didn’t want anything else to happen. He’s seen “heinous things,” he said.
But he remembered the pops. And they were abrupt.
“There was gunfire everywhere,” he said, likening it to a loud roar.
It was different from gunfire in Afghanistan, he noted, where it was easier to single out which direction it was coming from.
Watson said he remembers gunfire going off in the armored vehicle, but was unsure who fired first when Martin asked if was Slatten.
“I don’t recall. It was chaos, it was nuts,” Watson said, apologizing for his inability to remember.
“Just chaos,” he repeated.
In his grand jury testimony, Watson had said that Slatten fired twice from the vehicle but that he had no idea what he did or who he was firing at.
“I have a fairly strong recollection of him shooting first,” Watson had said back then.
The guards insisted that they fired in self defense and had received reports of a second car bomb.
One of the vehicles caught in the melee that day was a white Kia sedan, carrying a young Iraqi medical student and his mother, both of whom were killed in the shooting.
Martin asked Watson Wednesday if he remembered firing at a white car.
“I do,” Watson said. “I shot at a white car.”
Watson said the car was moving slowly toward them, but that it looked empty. It had lots of bullet holes, was “banged up” and could’ve had bodies. “But it was empty to me,” he said.
He again recalled Slatten firing, maybe twice, saying it stuck in his memory because it was “deafening.”
After the first shots rang out, Watson said he began firing at the white car, which he said was heading toward the convoy. He emptied a couple rounds or a whole magazine – he couldn’t recall which – into the driver’s side door of the white car.
“Did you perceive that to be a threat at the time,” Martin asked.
“Yes sir,” Watson responded.
“Is that why you fired at it,” Martin continued.
“Yes sir,” Watson said.
After seeing four Army guys die in Iraq, Watson said he had learned to do whatever it takes to survive.
“They were fucked up,” Watson said of the deceased soldiers, apologizing for his language.
He remembers them screaming before they died. The experience drove home one point for him.
“I ain’t going out like that,” Watson said. “It was fucking terrible.”
Watson went on to say that he fired a grenade at the white car.
“It stopped. Maybe,” he said. “It stopped for sure.”
He also described shooting an Iraqi who he said had a gun slung over his shoulder, but who he said was running away from them.
Martin asked if the man had pointed or shot at the convoy.
“I’m pretty sure he did. I never saw him,” Watson said.
Watson acknowledged that the team initially told State Department investigators later that day that they didn’t shoot. When Martin asked why, Watson called it “pretty easy.”
“A ton of paperwork,” he said.
Slatten’s retrial is expected to last for another several weeks.