In imposing lengthy prison terms on four former employees of the security firm once known as Blackwater, a federal judge has reinforced the message that the American legal system can mete out justice even when crimes are committed in wartime in another country. The fact that the defendants were in Iraq when they killed more than a dozen unarmed civilians shouldn’t have immunized them from prosecution, conviction or punishment, and in the end, it did not.
Eight years after the shootings in a crowded public square in Baghdad, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth sentenced Nicholas Slatten, who was convicted of murder in October, to life in prison. The judge imposed mandatory-minimum 30-year sentences on Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, who were found guilty of manslaughter and firearms charges. It is a relief, even all these years later, that the actions of these men will not go unpunished and that some semblance of justice at least will be offered to the families of their victims.
This prosecution has followed a tortuous path, made more difficult by missteps by the State Department, which granted some of the contractors limited immunity, leading a lower court judge to throw out the charges. A federal appeals court overturned that judgment while instructing the trial court to ensure that tainted evidence wasn’t admitted.
The result was an 11-week trial at which dozens of Iraqi witnesses testified in moving terms about how the Blackwater security convoy fired on a crowd in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square without provocation. The father of a 9-year-old boy recalled how he watched his son’s brains spill out at his feet. The jury convicted the defendants after 28 days of deliberations.
The defendants sentenced last week can appeal their convictions on myriad grounds, including the question of whether the government erred in treating the men as Defense Department contractors when they technically worked for the State Department. Their lawyers also are expected to argue that the judge wrongly applied a law against the use of military firearms in the commission of a felony.
But even if the defendants prevail in some or all of their appeals, the Justice Department deserves credit for doggedly pursuing this case. Considerable attention has been paid to the fact that the outcry over these killings complicated relations between the United States and the government of Iraq. But it was important to seek justice for these victims not simply to defuse a diplomatic crisis but also for the reason any prosecution for murder or manslaughter is brought: to punish those who unlawfully take the lives of others. As in trials arising from crimes in this country, the prosecution had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
These killings were horrific. That they took place in a supposed “fog of war” was not an excuse. That is a timely lesson as the U.S. engages anew in Iraq.