WASHINGTON — A yearslong legal fight over a deadly shooting of civilians in an Iraq war zone reaches its reckoning point with the sentencing this week of four former Blackwater security guards.
Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough face mandatory, decadeslong sentences because of firearms convictions. A fourth defendant, Nicholas Slatten, faces life in prison after being found guilty of first-degree murder.
At the hearing Monday in U.S. District Court, defense lawyers intend to appeal for mercy by arguing that their clients acted in self-defense during a chaotic firefight in Baghdad. They also plan to argue that sending the defendants to prison for decades would be an unfairly harsh outcome for men who have close family ties and proud military careers, and who were operating in stressful conditions in a war-torn country.
The men were charged in the deaths of 14 Iraqis at a crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad, killings that caused an international uproar and became a dark episode of contractor violence during the Iraq war. Defense lawyers argued that the contractors, who arrived there after a car bomb exploded, were targeted with gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police, and shot back in self-defense. Prosecutors contended that there was no incoming fire and that the shooting was unprovoked.
The defendants — who were in Iraq to protect American diplomats — were convicted in October after a trial that stretched months and featured testimony from Iraqi witnesses and from other Blackwater guards who cooperated with the government.
The sentencing hearing arrives with much at stake for the men given the heavy punishments the government is seeking. The firearms convictions alone carry mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years in prison. But prosecutors are seeking sentences far beyond that, partly because they say the men have never shown remorse or accepted responsibility. The murder conviction against Slatten carries a life sentence.
"By imposing substantial sentences, this court would hold the defendants accountable for their callous, wanton and deadly conduct, and deter others wielding the awesome power over life or death from perpetrating similar atrocities in the future," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Defense lawyers say the mandatory minimums in this case violate a constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
"The defendants in this case did not have the option to 'leave their guns at home.' They were required to carry their government-issued weapons in order to do their job in a war zone," they wrote in court filings.
The lawyers said they were "aware of no other case in which the government has prosecuted government security contractors for conduct undertaken in self-defense in a war zone, much less for having used weaponry of a particular magnitude, when the weaponry was issued by the United States government for official use."
The sentencing won't bring an end to the legal wrangling, which began even before the guards were first charged in 2008. A judge later dismissed the case before trial, but a federal appeals court revived it and the guards were indicted again in 2013.
Defense lawyers have identified multiple legal issues likely to form the basis of an appeal, including whether the Justice Department had jurisdiction to charge the contractors in the first place.
The statute under which they were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers the overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees, military contractors and others who are supporting the American war mission. Defense lawyers note the Blackwater defendants worked as State Department contractors and were in Iraq to provide diplomatic, not military, services.
The legal fighting continued right up to sentencing, with defense lawyers seeking Friday to postpone the hearing after receiving new information — a victim impact statement from a witness — that they said was favorable to the defense. A judge denied the request.
Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law who has followed the case, said that while the sentences could seem harsh given the circumstances, the Justice Department has signaled that it sees an opportunity to use the case to send the message that contractors cannot act with impunity when abroad.
"A prosecutor is never obligated to bring a case," Corn said. He added, "The fact that they pursued this case tells you that they saw that there was some societal value in prosecuting this."