A federal judge sentenced a former Blackwater security guard to life in prison Monday and three others to 30 years each over a 2007 shooting that left 17 people dead in a public square in Baghdad.
The sentences should bring to a close one of the most painful episodes in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The killings sparked widespread criticism in Iraq and the U.S. over the use of ex-military personnel under loose government regulation to protect U.S. diplomats in the war zone.
Nicholas Slatten was sentenced to life for first-degree murder, and three other guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — to mandatory-minimum sentences of 30 years each on manslaughter and firearm charges, according to a court spokesman.
Prosecutors had asked U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth to sentence Slough to 57 years, Liberty to 51 years and Heard to 47 years.
The government had flown in dozens of Iraqi witnesses — the most foreigners ever to assist in a Justice Department prosecution — to testify about scenes of graphic violence when a Blackwater convoy called Raven 23 opened fire with automatic weapons, sniper rifles and grenade launchers in 2007.
During the trial, prosecutors and Iraqi witnesses described the Nisoor Square shootings as unprovoked, the result of callous, trigger-happy civilian security guards who were nervous about intelligence reports that a white Kia carrying a car bomb was circulating in the city looking for a target.
The defense, which called only four witnesses, characterized the killings as a tragic mistake that started when unknown Iraqis opened fire on the Blackwater convoy. Defense attorneys cautioned the jury against second-guessing the actions of fellow citizens who were reacting to what they believed was the sound of gunfire in a war zone.
The shootings stirred anti-U.S. passions around the globe and helped undercut Americans' confidence in the mission in Iraq, particularly the use of private contractors, such as Blackwater, to supplement and, in some cases, replace the regular military.
It took the Washington jury an unusually long period — 28 days — to reach a verdict, reflecting the unusual and difficult issues presented by the trial.