WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by four Blackwater Worldwide security guards who argued prosecutors made improper use of their statements to investigators in charging them with killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The justices refused to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in Washington, D.C., that reinstated the criminal charges against the guards for their roles in the Baghdad shooting that outraged Iraqis and strained ties between the two nations.
The shooting occurred as the guards, U.S. State Department security contractors, escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through the Iraqi capital on September 16, 2007.
The guards, U.S. military veterans, responded to a car bombing when gunfire erupted at a busy intersection. The guards told State Department investigators they opened fire in self-defense, but prosecutors said the shooting was an unprovoked attack on civilians.
A federal judge ruled the defendants’ constitutional right against self-incrimination had been violated and the case was tainted because prosecutors improperly used statements made by the guards to the investigators right after the shooting.
But the appeals court disagreed that the indictment of the guards had been improperly obtained through the use of their compelled statements, a victory for the U.S. Justice Department in a high-profile prosecution.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, the attorney for the guards, Bruce Bishop, argued the government had compelled them to make potentially incriminating statements. Later use of those statements to charge the guards violated their constitutional right against self-incrimination, he said.
“The issue is of national importance,” Bishop said. “The privilege against self-incrimination is a fundamental and universal value in Anglo-American justice.”
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli from the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal. He said the evidence the government used to obtain the indictment was based on legitimate sources independent of the guards’ compelled testimony.
The four guards - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball -- were employed by Blackwater, the controversial private security company which has changed its name to Xe Services and then to Academi.
In the Iraqi and Afghan wars, Blackwater came to symbolize the U.S. policy of hiring private contractors to do work previously handled by the military.
Prosecutors have dismissed charges against a fifth guard, Nicholas Slatten. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, already has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
The State Department had ordered the guards to explain to investigators what happened under threat of job loss and had promised them limited immunity. The Justice Department said prosecutors and FBI investigators did not make improper use of those statements in building their case.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal without comment.
Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Anthony Boadle