WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal jury found three American former Blackwater guards guilty of manslaughter and weapons charges on Wednesday and a fourth of murder in connection with the 2007 killing of 14 unarmed Iraqis at a Baghdad traffic circle.
The decision closes an emotional chapter in a case that outraged Iraqis, inflamed anti-American sentiment across the globe and touched off debate over the role of private security contractors working for the U.S. government in war zones.
A court clerk read the jury’s verdict to a packed courtroom after a two-month trial and more than seven weeks of deliberations. The defendants sat and listened silently.
Paul Slough, 35, Dustin Heard, 33, and Evan Liberty, 32, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in connection with at least 12 deaths at Nisur Square, where the heavily armed four-truck Blackwater Worldwide convoy had been trying to clear a path for U.S. diplomats.
The Washington jury also found the three guilty of attempted manslaughter in connection with the wounding of at least 11 Iraqis. They face at least 30 years in prison.
A fourth guard, Nicholas Slatten, 30, was convicted of murder in connection with the first death at the circle and faces a life sentence.
“I don’t think the jury understood what it was like to be in a war zone,” David Schertler, a lawyer for Heard, told Reuters.
Lawyers for Liberty of New Hampshire and Heard of Tennessee said they planned to appeal. Lawyers for Slatten, also of Tennessee, and Slough of Texas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The massacre on Sept. 16, 2007, stood out for its brazenness, even during a war replete with grisly incidents, and formed a tense backdrop to talks between the United States and Iraq over the rules governing the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.
“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” said Washington U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, whose office prosecuted the case.
Prosecutors flew 30 Iraqis to the United States to testify, including some who were wounded in the shooting, and drew on the testimony of nine other guards in the unit. One former guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2008 and testified against his former colleagues.
During trial, the government sought to portray the guards as recklessly unleashing massive firepower, including multiple grenades not designed for use in urban areas, on innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children.
Lawyers for the guards had argued that while the loss of life was unfortunate, the men were operating in a volatile war zone and had used their weapons only in response to incoming fire and a vehicle that appeared to be a car bomb.
The defendants’ lawyers presented four of their own witnesses but extensively cross-examined government witnesses and tried to draw attention to inconsistencies in the testimony. Jurors during deliberations considered nearly 100 different questions about the shooting.
Much of the case turned on whether the unit was facing incoming fire or whether a white car realistically appeared to be a car bomb bearing down on the convoy. Slatten had been charged with the murder of the driver of the car.
The trial came after years of stumbles and false starts, as the case has dragged on amid problems with evidence, much of it due to a flawed investigation by the U.S. State Department.
“We certainly respect the court’s decision in this case,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
A grand jury first indicted five guards on manslaughter charges in 2008. A federal judge dismissed the charges the following year, saying prosecutors had relied too heavily on statements the guards gave to State Department investigators, which were explicitly not to be used for criminal prosecution.
An appeals court later reinstated the case, and prosecutors brought new charges against four of the guards last year.
But in April, prosecutors faced another setback, when an appeals court panel ended the manslaughter case against Slatten, saying prosecutors had waited too long to charge him.
The U.S. Attorney’s office responded by obtaining in May the murder indictment against him, which is not subject to a statute of limitations but is harder to prove.
North Carolina-based Blackwater was sold and renamed several times. It is now called Academi, based in Mclean, Virginia. In June, Academi merged with another security contractor, Triple Canopy, which now has the same State Department contract to protect officials in Iraq that Blackwater had in 2007.
Editing by Jason Szep and Cynthia Osterman