WASHINGTON — Four former Blackwater security contractors found guilty in a deadly Baghdad shooting appealed their convictions on Monday, saying a key witness against them had changed his testimony after the trial and that prosecutors lacked jurisdiction to even bring the case.
The appeals, long expected, represent the latest legal volley in a criminal case that's spanned years in Washington's federal court and that concluded with guilty verdicts following a monthslong trial in 2014.
Nicholas Slatten is serving a life sentence on a charge of first-degree murder. Three other former guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were found guilty of manslaughter and firearms charges carrying mandatory minimum 30-year sentences.
The case arose from a September 2007 shooting in Nisoor Square, with prosecutors accusing the guards in the deaths of 14 Iraqi civilians. The mass killings at the crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad strained international relations and drew immediate public scrutiny to the role of American contractors in war-torn Iraq.
At trial, the two sides presented the jury with radically different accounts of what happened: Prosecutors described the killings as a one-sided ambush of unarmed civilians, while defense lawyers said the guards opened fire only after a white Kia sedan seen as a potential car bomb threat began moving quickly toward their convoy.
Central to the appeal is a witness who defense lawyers say changed his account of what happened in a way that undermines the government's narrative.
The witness, an Iraqi traffic officer, told jurors that the driver of the Kia was killed by the first shots that were fired in an unprovoked burst of violence that set off the rest of the rampage. He testified that after seeing the mortally wounded driver, he ran in front of the convoy with his hands up and told the guards to stop shooting.
But right before the sentencing hearing last April, the same witness submitted a victim impact statement saying that the driver was still alive when the shooting started and that, instead of standing before the convoy as he had earlier maintained, he actually remained in his traffic kiosk out of fear.
Though U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth refused to grant the men a new trial, the defense team said Monday the new account dismantled the prosecution's case and called into question the entire chain of events presented to the jury.
"This evidence eviscerated the government's case and would have led to acquittals," defense lawyers wrote. "The district court abused its discretion by denying a new trial."
Prosecutors will have a chance to respond to the filings before a federal appeals court hears arguments. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, Bill Miller, declined to comment Monday.
Defense lawyers also challenged the federal law under which the case was brought— the MilitaryExtraterritorial Jurisdiction Act — saying it was meant to hold Defense Department contractors accountable for crimes committed overseas. But the Blackwater guards were in Iraq as State Department contractors and were responsible for providing security to State Department and diplomatic personnel.
At the time of the shooting, defense lawyers say, the guards were attempting to find a secure route back for a U.S. diplomat following a car bomb explosion.
"They were acting under Embassy, not military, supervision, and were not participating in any militaryoperation or supporting any Defense Department mission," the defense lawyers wrote.
Slatten, 32, filed a separate brief, saying the prosecution against him was "vindictive" and that the jury didn't have sufficient evidence for a murder conviction.
The guards were first indicted in 2008, but a judge later threw out the case. The Justice Department then secured a fresh indictment in 2013.