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Charges revived against guards in Blackwater case

A federal appeals court reverses an earlier ruling about the 2007 incident in Iraq, which left 14 civilians dead.

April 22, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • Blackwater Worldwide security guard Paul A. Slough, left, arrives at court in Salt Lake City with his wife and lawyer in 2008. He is one of four guards who will be sent back for trial.
Blackwater Worldwide security guard Paul A. Slough, left, arrives at court… (Scott G. Winterton / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — A federal appeals court in Washington revived manslaughter and weapons charges against four Blackwater Worldwide security guards in a fatal 2007 shooting in Baghdad that outraged Iraqis.

The decision by three members of the U.S. Court of Appeals here Friday said that U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina "made a number of systemic errors based on an erroneous legal analysis." They reversed Urbina's ruling and sent it back to him for further proceedings.

"We are pleased with the ruling," said Dean Boyd, a Department of Justice spokesman. "We are assessing the next step."

Many of the Blackwater guards gave sworn statements about the incident with the guarantee that the statements would not be made public or used against them. Journalists later obtained copies of the statements, and Urbina ruled that the subsequent publicity "tainted" the prosecution's decision to seek indictments against five of the guards.

But the appellate judges ruled that Urbina erred by lumping all of the statements and other evidence together when "at the most only some portion of the content was tainted." They also said Urbina "made no effort to decide what parts … were free of taint."

Blackwater has since been renamed Xe Services. The company's general counsel in North Carolina, who refused to be identified by name, declined to comment about the setback for the four guards.

In September 2007, a car bomb ignited near a Baghdad compound where a U.S. diplomat was meeting with Iraqi officials. American security officials ordered the guards from Blackwater, a private security company under contract with the State Department, to escort the diplomat to safety.

At the same time, as a separate Blackwater team began blocking traffic in order to get the diplomat to safety, shots erupted, killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 20.

The four guards who will be sent back for trial were identified as Evan Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; Paul Slough of Keller, Texas; Dustin Heard of Maryville, Tenn.; and Donald Ball of West Valley City, Utah.

Charges against the fifth guard, Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., have been dismissed by prosecutors. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway of California, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and signaled he will testify against the others.

The shooting drew an outcry in Iraq because the dead were not armed or insurgents. In fact, some were shot and killed in their cars as they attempted to leave the area. Many in Iraq wanted the guards prosecuted in that country.

Hassan Jabir, a lawyer who was wounded, told the Associated Press that Friday's ruling was a "big achievement." He characterized the shooting as a "Blackwater crime" and added, "They must be convicted according to the Iraqi and American law."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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