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The long and twisted prosecution of Evan Liberty and Raven 23

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Editor's note: This is the second 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.

Then-25-year-old Evan Liberty couldn't have imagined in the days after his Blackwater security team came under attack in Nisur Square, Baghdad, on Sept. 16, 2007, that seven years later in a Washington D.C. courtroom he'd be found guilty of killing innocent civilians that day in Iraq.

Just days after the Spaulding High graduate's Raven 23 tactical team fought off insurgents dressed as Iraqi police, his employer, the U.S. Dept. of State, cleared his team of any wrongdoing and took sworn statements in exchange for limited immunity.

But Iraqis and their prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, were outraged. They demanded the Blackwater team be punished and said they would bring charges, themselves, saying that if such an outrageous killing of civilians happened in Great Britain or America, its citizens would not stand for it.

Evan Liberty at trial, the stress clearly showing (Courtesy photo)

It was during this time that Iraqis were pushing to have servicemen found guilty of crimes in Iraq punished under harsh Sharia law, something the U.S. government wanted to avoid.

From Vice President Joe Biden to former Secretary of State Candoleezza Rice to former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to President Obama, government officials promised justice would be done.

It took them seven phlegmatic years, a quagmire of questionable legal strategies and judicial overreach and the redefining of written law, but they got it done.

On April 13, 2015, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District rejected a claim of innocence by Nicholas A. Slatten, 31, of Sparta, Tenn., who received the life sentence after being convicted of murder in October for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.

The three other defendants, Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex.; Liberty; and Dustin L. Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn.; were sentenced to 30 years plus one day after being convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter and for using machine guns in commission of a crime.

Lamberth often dozed off during the trial, according to one of Liberty's closest childhood buddies, Chris Buslovich, who spent many days in the courtroom supporting his friend. He called the trial and the charges "ridiculous."

The trial, itself, which consisted mostly of scores of Iraqis who said they were in the square that day and a handful of Blackwater agents who'd been given government immunity in exchange for testifying against their comrades, lasted some 11 weeks, ending on Aug. 29, 2014.

Jury deliberations began Sept. 2 and lasted till a guilty verdict was rendered seven weeks later on Oct. 22.

Brian Liberty of Rochester, Evan's dad, said the judge made clear to jurors before they began deliberations he wasn't going to stand for anything but a verdict one way or the other.

"He said, 'I'm not retrying this case, you come back with a decision,' " Brian Liberty said recently in an exclusive interview with The Lebanon Voice.

About a month after the sentencing Evan Liberty, now 33, was transferred from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va., where Brian Liberty said his son lost considerable weight, to FCI Schuykill in Minorsville, Pa., on May18, 2015, where he remains today.

"There's not many nights I sleep past 3:30," said an emotional Brian Liberty. "I wake up thinking about him in there all the time."

From left, Brian Liberty, his son, Aaron Liberty holding his son, Ellis, and Evan Liberty. (Courtesy photo)

What happened to Brian Liberty, his son, and the three other former Blackwater employees who were sentenced and their families is nothing short of a nightmare that's lasted seven years already and could last another 30, or more.

Ironically, when it first began there seemed to be little to worry about. First, a Department of State probe found there was no egregious conduct in the square that day. Then in 2009, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the case against Raven 23, saying government lawyers ignored the advice of senior Justice Department officials by building the criminal case on sworn statements of the guards given under a grant of immunity - meaning the guards' own statements could not be used against them.

Shortly after, then Secretary of State Clinton sent an email (among those recently released) to Harold Hongju Koh, a legal adviser to the Dept. of State, that reads, "... what can we do about Judge Urbina's ruling example, what is the likelihood of success on appeal? Can the US file a civil action against the company? Pay compensation to the victims? What other options do we have?"

It's clear from the email there was but one option envisioned by government officials.

During all this time Evan Liberty remained free, spending time in Colombia with his wife, Paola Andrea Usuga, a professional model he'd met while working as a Marines embassy guard in Guatemala.

In Colombia he'd begun his own business, running a couple of gyms, his father said.

The Libertys and other defendants had hoped that with Urbina's dismissing of the case, it would go away, but two years later, in April 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit revived the prosecution, ruling that Urbina had wrongly interpreted the law. The decision gave the Justice Department another chance.

In May 2011 Liberty, Slough, Slatten and Heard were indicted with all pretrial motions held in private away from the press despite efforts by the Washington Post to allow reporters inside.

Incredibly it was another three years plus before the trial actually began.

With physical evidence half a world away and seven years old, any chain of evidence woefully bereft of credibility and alleged victims' recounting of events often conflicting and confused, it was a wonder the prosecution was even able to mount a case, let alone win.

But they did, for now.

Paul Slough (Courtesy image)

Evan Liberty and the other three defendants filed their appeal on Feb. 1. It's far from over.

Slough may have put it best in a statement he made at sentencing last April.

"For seven years, this has been about seeking a conviction, not the truth. We are not going to be silent anymore," he said.

Next: Friends, family talk about Evan Liberty: star athlete, volunteer, decorated Marine, "the most level-headed guy you'd want to meet."

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