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Murder retrial outcome may well impact Rochester man's chance at freedom

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Editor's note: This is another in an ongoing series chronicling the wrongful imprisonment of a Rochester man in the Nisur Square incident in Iraq back in 2007.

The first glimpse into whether justice could lie ahead for a Rochester man imprisoned in the infamous Nisur Square massacre of 2007 in then-wartorn Iraq could come next month when the murder retrial of another man convicted in the incident is expected to conclude.

To show how slowly the wheels of justice move at the federal level it was almost a year ago that the first-degree murder conviction of former Blackwater security guard Nicholas Slatten, 34, of Sparta, Tenn., was tossed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court ruled that the initial trial court "abused its discretion" in not allowing Slatten to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, one of whom is Evan Liberty who grew up in Rochester.

Evan Liberty (Courtesy photo)

"It is just incredible how slowly this is going, how long it's taking," Brian Liberty, Evan's dad, said this week.

The families of Liberty and two others held on 30-year mandatory automatic weapons charges are hoping Slatten will be found innocent and released paving the way for a hoped-for resentencing in which they are also set free after three years imprisonment in what many see as a travesty of justice for all four former Blackwater security guards serving their country in one of the most dangerous places on Earth when the so-called massacre occurred.

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.

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 Evan Liberty's wrongful sentence, which for now is a mandatory 30 years for a weapons violation.

Besides ordering a retrial for Slatten the appeals court last August 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."

Brian Liberty said on Tuesday that after reading recaps of the Slatten trial currently under way it's incredible to hear all the exculpatory testimony coming out that was missing in the original trial.

"Seems to me all this stuff that is coming out, I mean where has the stuff been hiding for all these years," Brian Liberty said. "I was surprised at some of the witnesses the prosecution put on, and that everything Nick was charged with he didn't' do."

Meanwhile, Evan Liberty remains held in a federal prison, but remains in good spirits, his dad says.

"He's doing great, he keeps his spirits up," Brian Liberty said.

Prosecutors have come to Evan Liberty with a couple of plea deals but "Evan wants nothing to do with it," his dad added.

"He says he wouldn't do anything different today," Brian Liberty said. "He did nothing wrong, he did what he was trained for."

Sadly, just as life goes on, so does death. Evan Liberty's grandfather Ellis Hatch, 86, of Rochester, a nationally renowned fly tyer, died in May.

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 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.

With President Trump, a strong advocate of the military, in the White House,

supporters of the four men know there's always the possibility of a pardon, but that couldn't even begin to play out until all the sentencing and appeals processes are fully played out.

For info on how to send an email or letter to President Trump in support of Evan Liberty go to supportraven23.com.

Below are links to several of the stories produced by The Lebanon Voice, which is now The Rochester Voice.

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/friends-coaches-recall-a-man-who-could-not-do-what-the-government-says-he-did-cms-5319

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/a-travesty-of-justice-prosecution-missteps-outlined-in-multiple-appeals-briefs-cms-5369

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/according-to-the-government-raven-23-entered-the-square-and-started-shooting-cms-5340

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/the-long-and-twisted-prosecution-of-evan-liberty-and-raven-23-cms-5289

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/as-evan-liberty-waits-for-justice-the-days-come-and-go-cms-6475

http://www.thelebanonvoice.com/in-iraq-in-2007-this-was-an-everyday-thing-cms-5273

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