Court overturns murder conviction and prison sentences for Blackwater killers

“Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.”

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Responsible for killing or wounding at least 31 Iraqi civilians during the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, three former Blackwater contractors will receive shorter prison sentences while the murder conviction of a fourth operative was overturned by a federal appeals court on Friday. Despite the fact that Blackwater operatives have uploaded numerous videos online depicting their vehicles running over unarmed pedestrians and contractors repeatedly shooting at innocent civilians, four convicted killers will receive lighter punishments due to legal technicalities.

At approximately noon on September 16, 2007, a Blackwater convoy codenamed Raven 23 disobeyed orders from U.S. Embassy officials to remain in the Green Zone and instead established a blockade at Nisour Square in Baghdad. While driving his mother to an appointment, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y stopped his white Kia sedan at the checkpoint and waited for the Blackwater mercenaries to let them pass. Hiding inside the convoy’s command vehicle, Nicholas Slatten aimed his SR-25 sniper rifle through a gun portal and fired a round at Ahmed.

As Ahmed’s head exploded, his car slipped into neutral and slowly began to approach the Blackwater convoy. While attempting to stop the car, Iraqi police officer Ali Khalaf Salman raised his left arm signaling the shooters to stop firing. Inside the sedan, Ahmed’s mother, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum Al-Khazali, clutched his bleeding head while screaming, “My son! My son! Help me, help me!”

A turret gunner named Jeremy Ridgeway opened fire killing Ahmed’s mother. Another Blackwater shooter launched an M-203 grenade that caused the sedan to erupt into flames. The only damage inflicted upon the convoy’s command vehicle came via shrapnel from an American grenade fired at close range by a Blackwater operative.

According to witnesses, Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, and Jeremy Ridgeway attempted to kill everyone in Nisour Square. Another turret gunner, Matthew Murphy, waved his arms warning nearby Iraqis to get down.

After ignoring repeated orders to cease firing, the massacre finally ended when Blackwater operatives turned their guns on each other. Instead of killing their own teammates, the shooters eventually decided to stop firing. As the convoy exited the square, some of the shooters continued indiscriminately firing their machine guns at civilian vehicles

In December 2008, Ridgeway pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter. On October 22, 2014, Slatten was found guilty of first-degree murder.

Slough was convicted on 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 17 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense. Liberty was found guilty of eight counts of voluntary manslaughter, 12 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense. Heard was convicted on six counts of voluntary manslaughter, 11 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense.

For his role in firing the first shots of the massacre, Slatten was sentenced to life in prison. Heard, Liberty, and Slough each received prison sentences of 30 years and one day.

On Friday, a federal appeals court rejected Slatten’s murder conviction and ordered Heard, Liberty, and Slough to be resentenced. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Slatten should have initially been allowed to be tried separately from his co-defendants while Heard, Liberty, and Slough should not have been charged with using military firearms to commit another felony due to the fact that they were under contract by the U.S. Department of State.

As Heard, Liberty, and Slough are expected to receive more lenient sentences in light of the recent rulings, the Justice Department under the Trump administration will decide whether to reprosecute Slatten and once again track down many of the surviving Iraqi witnesses who testified against him.

“In reaching this conclusion, we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard, and Liberty’s actions,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Henderson, writing for the court. “Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.”

Two weeks after the Nisour Square massacre, then-Blackwater CEO Erik Prince testified before the House Oversight Committee. Under oath, Prince lied to U.S. Representatives when asserting that Blackwater never kills innocent civilians.

Video leaked by Blackwater operatives revealed convoys running over pedestrians, shooting civilians, and running cars off the road. After falsely accusing the U.S. Army of killing the unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Prince later went on to advise the Trump administration while his sister, Betsy DeVos, was appointed Secretary of Education.

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