WASHINGTON - A U.S. appeals court on Friday tossed out the first-degree murder conviction of a former Blackwater security guard sentenced to life in the so-called Nisur Square massacre and could spell a glimmer of hope for a Rochester man imprisoned in connection with the tragic 2007 Baghdad incident.
According to a report from Reuters, the court also ordered resentencings for three others convicted in the incident including Evan Liberty of Rochester.
The September 2007 shootings, which left 14 Iraqi civilians dead and 17 wounded, put American-contracted security forces in the spotlight for alleged abuses inside Iraq.
|Evan Liberty during trial|
But it was the government's heavy-handed and often nefarious prosecution that drew the most scrutiny in recent years and spawned a 2016 Lebanon Voice multi-part series of stories detailing Liberty's wrongful sentence, which for now is a mandatory 30 years for a weapons violation.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the trial court "abused its discretion" in not allowing Nicholas Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the civilian massacre.
In a split ruling, the court also found the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter - Paul Slough, 37, of Keller, Texas; Liberty, and Dustin Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. - violated the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."
Reached today by phone, Evan Liberty's father, Brian Liberty, said he and his family were cautiously optimistic that this might mean a lighter sentence for their son.
"Evan and I, we try not to get too excited when these things happen," Brian Liberty said. "I mean that (2014) trial threw us for a loop."
He said right now defense lawyers are poring over the appellate court documents, adding that Evan's lawyer was going to visit him at a federal prison in Pennsylvania today.
It was around noon on Sept. 16, 2007, that Liberty's squad at Blackwater, named Raven 23, got a call to assist with security for diplomatic personnel near the Green Zone of Baghdad.
A huge car bomb had ignited in the Nisur Square, and a separate Blackwater team escorting the diplomats had to get out as fast as it could. Liberty's tactical support team went off to block off a traffic circle to keep traffic back (during the first team's escape).
As what appears to be civilian traffic mostly either slowed or turned back, a white Kia driving on the wrong side of the road approached the roadblock where Raven 23 was securing the circle.
When the white Kia continued to drive erratically toward the Raven 23 positons, the vehicle's occupants were warned verbally then with warning shots before someone from the team killed the driver with a single bullet.
In an interview last year Brian Liberty, Evan's father, said that's when what appeared to be Iraqi police began firing at Raven 23, initiating a furious exchange that federal prosecutors later said left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead and many more wounded.
Brian Liberty said his son was defending himself and his team that was under attack, most likely by insurgents dressed as Iraqi police officers.
The four Blackwater guards were found guilty by a Washington jury in October 2014 and sentenced the following April.
Now Liberty is imprisoned at FCI Schuylkill in Minersville, Pa., a medium security federal prison, saddled with a 30-year mandatory sentence for using an automatic weapon, a weapon issued by the Dept. of Justice for whom he worked. The U.S. government, however, disagreed. Pressured by Iraqi politicians and local police, they began what many have characterized as a vindictive prosecution to punish Raven 23 for what they called indiscriminate use of deadly force that killed at least 14 civilians.
Evan Liberty, who served in the Marines as an embassy security guard, grew up in Rochester and attended Spaulding High where he was a standout athlete on the varsity basketball team.
Below are links to several of the stories produced by The Lebanon Voice, which is now The Rochester Voice.