Editor's note: This is the fourth of a several-part series that will run during March highlighting the case of Raven 23 and Rochester native Evan Liberty, who is wrongly serving a 30-year sentence in a federal prison in the infamous Nisur Square incident in Iraq of 2007. Today: The government's prosecution of the case, what it says happened on Sept. 16, 2007 and comments from the judge and prosecutors after sentencing.
It took seven years of investigation from half a world away, legal maneuvering over venue and charges, a nearly 11-week trial in which scores of witnesses testified and an unbelievable 28 days of jury deliberations to find four Blackwater security guards guilty in what was called by prosecutors the Nisur Square massacre of 2007.
Three of the guards, including Evan Liberty of Rochester, were sentenced to time served for voluntary and attempted manslaughter in the deaths of 14 Iraqi civilians, but also were given 30-year mandatory sentences for using automatic weapons, whose use, ironically, had been sanctioned by the U.S. State Department so they could do their jobs, which was to guard various diplomats in the wartorn country that Iraq was a decade ago.
The fourth man sentenced, Nicholas Abram Slatten, 30, of Sparta, Tenn., was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was accused of firing the first shots and was sentenced to life. Slatten had twice been unsuccessfully prosecuted on manslaughter charges, before the government changed its charge to first-degree murder.
Specifically, the other three's guilty verdicts read like this: Paul Alvin Slough, of Keller, Texas, was found guilty of 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 17 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense; Liberty was found guilty of eight counts of voluntary manslaughter, 12 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense; and Dustin Laurent Heard, of Maryville, Tenn., was found guilty of six counts of voluntary manslaughter, 11 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense.
On April 13, 2015, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District of Columbia pronounced sentence on the four men, all military veterans. In comments to the court Lamberth declared, the men "appear overall to be good young men who have never been in trouble."
He then praised the U.S. government for "finding and exposing the truth of what happened in Nisur Square" on Sept. 16, 2007, adding, "It is clear these fine young men just panicked. The overall, wild, thing that went on here can just not be condoned by a court ... A court has to recognize the severity of the crimes committed, including the number of victims."
The automatic weapons use mandatory 30-year sentence was designed to discourage domestic gang members from using such weapons in the execution of their illegal drug activities, but Lamberth made it clear that if defense lawyers attempted to nullify the weapons charge he would reopen the sentencing and seek longer prison terms for the manslaughter convictions.
The trial itself was a long, tortuous affair for all as the government presented testimony from 71 witnesses, including 30 from Iraq, the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the United States for a criminal trial.
The witnesses included 13 people who were wounded in the shootings, as well as relatives of many of those who died. The government's witnesses also included nine members of Raven 23, the Blackwater team involved in the shootings.
Adding to the confusion and length, every question to Iraqis had to be translated as well as their answers back to English.
At trial, witnesses said that the shooting began almost immediately after a convoy of armored Blackwater trucks rolled into the traffic circle. The guards said they were shot at by Iraqi insurgents, and returned fire, but dozens of Iraqis and some former Blackwater colleagues testified that the shooting was unprovoked.
"I saw people huddled down in their cars, trying to shield their children with their bodies," Adam Frost, a former Blackwater contractor, said in key testimony against his one-time colleagues.
"What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity," T. Patrick Martin, a federal prosecutor, said.
Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement after the trial was over, "This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war. Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. Today they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families. I pray that this verdict will bring some sense of comfort to the survivors of that massacre. I want to thank the prosecutors and law enforcement agents who have fought for the past seven years to bring justice to the memories of those who were gunned down in Nisur Square."
This case was investigated by the FBI's Washington Field Office. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi National Police provided cooperation and assistance in the investigation.
Exactly a year after the guilty verdicts were rendered, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch honored the team from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and the FBI's Washington Field Office for the successful prosecution of the four former security guards
"The individuals being honored today stand out within a department that holds all of its employees and partners to an extremely high standard of excellence," said Lynch. "They have put in long hours, made immense sacrifices and, in some cases, placed themselves in harm's way. They have taken on issues that once seemed intractable, and made progress on problems that once seemed impossible. And their outstanding work is an inspiration to public servants everywhere."
It should be noted that The Lebanon Voice reached out to federal prosecutors involved in the case for comment several times over the past two weeks, but no phone calls were ever returned.
Next up: Why the sentencing of Rochester native Evan Liberty and three other Raven 23 security guards could be the real massacre here.