Blackwater contractors guilty in 2007 Iraq shooting deaths

The New York Times reported yesterday that four defendants who were employed by Blackwater Worldwide Security were convicted of crimes related to the 2007 shooting in Iraq's Nissour Square. Defendant Nicholas Slatten was convicted of murder, while defendants Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime. Blackwater was a private security firm that contracted with the U.S. government to provide services in Iraq, such as loading bombs onto Predator drones and serving as security guards to diplomats. These contractors were providing security for State Department employees.

The case originated in Nissour Square in Iraq on September 16, 2007, when, according to the Wall Street Journal, a car bomb exploded nearby and Blackwater contractors opened fire, killing Iraqi civilians. The case was marked by conflicting accounts of what happened on that day. The contractors claimed that insurgents fired on them and, according to their lawyers, the civilian deaths that occurred when they returned fire were a "tragic and unavoidable consequence of urban warfare." Iraqi witnesses who traveled to Washington to testify described a scenario of violence and brutality perpetrated by the contractors. A former Blackwater contractor who was in the convoy testified that the defendants were "firing recklessly on innocent people," according to the Times.

Because there was little physical evidence available the case consisted mostly of testimony by witnesses. The Times reports that there were allegations that the State Department gathered shell casings in an attempt to protect the contractors. Additionally, the State Department gave the contractors limited immunity after the incident, making it more difficult for the Justice Department to build a case. A federal judge initially threw out all charges, citing concerns of tainted evidence, according to the Wall Street Journal, but an appeals court ultimately permitted the case to proceed.

The jury deliberated for 28 days before delivering the guilty verdict, which will likely face multiple appeals in the coming months. TheTimes reports that a key issue may be whether the Justice Department had the jurisdiction to bring the case, as federal law gives the U.S. government jurisdiction over defense contractors and those working on behalf of the Pentagon, while the Blackwater defendants were working for the State Department.