WASHINGTON (AP) – Five Blackwater Worldwide guards charged with the unprovoked shooting that killed 14 innocent Iraqis and wounded dozens of others in 2007 will get their day in a Washington court after unsuccessfully trying to move the trial to Utah.
A federal judge on Monday ordered the guards to report Jan. 6 to a District of Columbia courthouse, where they are expected to plead not guilty.
The decision came hours after prosecutors announced charges against the guards that carry mandatory 30-year prison terms for the wild gunfire and grenade attacks on a Baghdad street.
The guards “must be held accountable for their actions, not just for the integrity of the American people, but for the Iraqi men, women and children whose lives have been destroyed,” FBI Assistant Director Joseph Persichini said at a Justice Department news conference in Washington.
The five Blackwater guards – all decorated military veterans – declined comment as they surrendered in federal court in Utah. They maintain they were protecting themselves from what they believed was an imminent car bomb attack.
“We think it’s pure and simple a case of self-defense,” defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday as the guards were booked. “Tragically, people did die.”
Defense attorneys sought to move the case to Utah, where one of the five guards lives, in hopes of appealing to conservative jurors who may be more sympathetic to the war in Iraq than those in Washington.
But the Justice Department argued that the case should remain in Washington, where a sixth guard who turned against his former colleagues has already pleaded guilty in a deal to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for lesser charges.
A federal magistrate in Salt Lake City agreed, although defense attorneys can appeal for the right to return to Utah.
Outraged Iraqis have waited more than a year to see how the U.S. would respond. The shooting by the largest U.S. security contractor in Iraq on a busy street in the capital sparked international condemnation, launched congressional hearings and inspired anti-American insurgent propaganda.
Prosecutors said the slain included young children, women, people fleeing in cars and a man whose arms were raised in surrender as he was shot in the chest.
The drama is far from over. After more than a year of investigative missteps and fierce debate, the Justice Department now faces stiff challenges to the evidence and legal grounds at the heart of its case.
Most importantly, prosecutors must prove they did not rely on protected statements the guards gave to State Department investigators within hours of the shootings.
The State Department gave limited immunity to all the guards in the four-car convoy, promising not to prosecute them based on the initial statements recounting how the violence began. The move left Justice Department and FBI investigators with a crime scene long gone cold and with limited forensic evidence to bolster their case.
“We fully expect that the defendants will raise the issue,” said Assistant Attorney General Patrick Rowan. “We’ve been very careful and very painstaking in the way we have investigated this case, the way we have assembled evidence. And we fully expect to prevail when the court hears that issue.”
Defense attorneys also will argue that the guards cannot be charged under a law intended to cover soldiers and military contractors since the men worked as civilian contractors for the State Department. Rowan, however, said Blackwater was supporting the military’s mission in Baghdad and the law therefore applies to them.
It is the first time prosecutors have used that argument to prosecute contractors. The Justice Department recently lost a somewhat similar case against former Marine Jose Luis Nazario Jr., who was charged in Riverside, Calif., with killing four unarmed Iraqi detainees.
The five guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
They are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. The machine gun charge, typically used in drug cases, carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.
The sixth guard, who is cooperating with the government, is Jeremy Ridgeway of California. He pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting.
The Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater has not been charged in the case.