RE: US judge lets Blackwater/Xe mercs off the hook
From a few towns over from me :
Quote:Iraq shooting case dismissed against Blackwater contractors, Rochester native
By John Quinn
Friday, January 1, 2010
Blackwater Worldwide security guard Evan Liberty, of Rochester.
(AP file photo)
ROCHESTER — A federal judge dismissed all charges Thursday against five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards, including city native Evan Liberty, who were accused of killing Iraqi citizens in 2007.
The contractors with the company — which since has changed its name to Xe Services — faced mandatory 30-year prison sentences if convicted of the manslaughter and weapons charges stemming from the death of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in September 2007.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said Justice Department prosecutors improperly built their case on sworn statements given under a promise of immunity. He said the government's explanations were "contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility."
The men, all highly decorated U.S. troops, were indicted in December 2008.
Chris Buslovich of Lebanon, Maine, a friend of Liberty's who met him in the fifth grade in Rochester and trained with him in the U.S. Marine Corps, said Liberty called him about the news Thursday.
"I think he's excited, but he's looking forward to moving on," Buslovich said, adding that everyone is excited and relieved "the right choice was made."
He said Liberty, who still lives in Rochester, was celebrating by "laying low with family."
He and Liberty attended boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., but split ways after Liberty went on to guarding U.S. Embassies with the Marines.
Liberty received additional and extensive training as a Blackwater contractor, in addition to his Marine Corps training, Buslovich said.
"They got even more intense training than the Marines," he said, adding that he was shocked when he first heard about the charges two years ago. "It's pretty clear they were just trying to appease the Iraqi government."
Prosecutors said the contractors launched an unprovoked attack on civilians using machine guns and grenade launchers. The guards maintained that their convoy was ambushed by insurgents.
"They didn't have anything to stand on from the beginning," Buslovich said.
Defense attorneys said the guards were thrilled by the ruling after more than two years of scrutiny.
"It's tremendously gratifying to see the court allow us to celebrate the new year the way it has," said attorney Bill Coffield, who represents Liberty. "It really invigorates your belief in our court system."
The other four guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
The September 2007 shooting in busy Nisoor Square left 17 Iraqis dead and inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad. The Iraqi government wanted the guards to face trial in Iraq, and officials there said they would closely watch how the U.S. judicial system handled the case.
"We're obviously disappointed by the decision," Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said in an e-mail. "We're still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options."
Prosecutors can appeal the ruling.
Blackwater contractors had been hired to guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The shooting led to the unraveling of the North Carolina-based company, which has changed its management as well as its name.
Urbina's ruling does not say whether the shooting was proper, only that the government improperly used evidence to build its case.
After the shooting, the State Department ordered the guards to explain what happened. Investigators promised the men that their statements were to be used only for an internal inquiry and would not be introduced in a criminal case. Such limited immunity deals are common in police departments so officers involved in shootings cannot hold up internal investigations by refusing to cooperate.
The deal meant prosecutors had to build their case without using those statements. Urbina said the Justice Department failed to do so.
Prosecutors read those statements, reviewed them in the investigation and used them to question witnesses and get search warrants, Urbina said. The Justice Department set up a process to avoid legal problems, but Urbina said lead prosecutor Ken Kohl and others "purposefully flouted the advice" of senior Justice Department officials telling them not to use the statements.
Key witnesses also reviewed the statements and the grand jury heard evidence that had been tainted by those statements, the judge said.
It was unclear what the ruling means for a sixth Blackwater guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, who turned on his former colleagues and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another. Had he gone to trial, the case against him would likely have fallen apart, but it's unclear whether Urbina will let him out of his plea deal.
The Iraqi government has refused to grant Blackwater a license to continue operating in the country, prompting the State Department to refuse to renew its contracts with the company.
In a statement released by its president, Joseph Yorio, the company said it was happy to have the shooting behind it.
"Like the people they were protecting, our Xe professionals were working for a free, safe and democratic Iraq for the Iraqi people," Yorio said. "With this decision, we feel we can move forward and continue to assist the United States in its mission to help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan find a peaceful, democratic future."
The Associated Press Contributed to this report.