US court overturns Blackwater guard's conviction over Baghdad massacre
In 2007, 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed 20 injured in Nisour Square by a team of private military contractors from an armoured convoy with machine-guns and grenade launchers.
In October 2014, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter, while Nicholas Slatten, the team's sniper who was the first to open fire, was convicted on a separate charge of first-degree murder.
Slatten was sentenced to life; Slough, Liberty and Heard got 30 years each.
In a split opinion issued on Friday, the three-judge panel of the US court of appeals for the DC circuit ruled that a court erred in 2014 by not allowing Slatten, 33, to be tried separately from his co-defendants.
During Slatten's trial, prosecutors said he saw killing Iraqis as "payback for 9/11". No connection between Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime and the 9/11 attacks has been proven.
The Washington appeals panel also ordered new sentences for Slough, Liberty and Heard, after judges concluded those sentences violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because prosecutors charged them with using military firearms while committing another felony.
That statute, typically employed against gang members or bank robbers, had never been used against overseas security contractors working for the US government.
The lawyers for the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prosecutors described the killings as a one-sided ambush of unarmed civilians, while the defence said the guards had opened fire only after a white Kia sedan seen as a potential car bomb began moving quickly toward their convoy. After the shooting stopped, no evidence of a bomb was found.
In issuing their ruling benefiting the defendants, the judges said they were in no way excusing the horror of events they said "def[y] civilized description".
"In reaching this conclusion, we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty's actions," said the US circuit Judge Karen L Henderson, writing for the court. "Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people."
In a sentencing memorandum filed in April 2015, the government said: "None of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat to the Raven 23 convoy."
In the same memorandum, David Boslego, a retired US army colonel, called the massacre "a grossly excessive use of force … grossly inappropriate for an entity whose only job was to provide personal protection to somebody in an armored vehicle".
Blackwater, which is based in North Carolina, is now known as Academi, having previously been sold and renamed as Xe Services. Its founder, Erik Prince, is the brother of the current US education secretary, Betsy DeVos. He is no longer attached to the company.