A federal appeals court has thrown out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three others to be re-sentenced in connection with the 2007 massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
He had faced manslaughter charges, but prosecutors missed a filing deadline in his case and inadvertently let the statute of limitations expire, leaving them with the choice of prosecuting him for murder or dropping the charges.
The Washington appeals panel also ordered new sentences for Slough, Liberty and Heard, who were found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years each.
Slatten, a 33-year-old contractor from Tennessee who was the sniper on a team protecting state department officials, is serving a life sentence.
The judges determined those sentences violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because prosecutors charged them with using military firearms while committing another felony.
Lawyers for the four men were not immediately available for comment.
Retrying Mr. Slatten will not be easy. "The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard", the ruling said. "Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people".
Blackwater said its convoy defended itself, but witnesses testified that the contractors opened fire without provocation. Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, and Evan Liberty were convicted in 2014 for opening fire on a group of Iraqis that included women and children.
Prosecutors said the four defendants, among 19 Blackwater guards providing security for State Department officials in Iraq, fired machine guns and grenade launchers in a reckless and out-of-control way after one of them falsely claimed their convoy, called Raven 23, was threatened by a vehicle bomber.
The guards claimed they were defending themselves after being shot at. During his trial, prosecutors said he saw killing Iraqis as "payback for 9/11". That statute, typically employed against gang members or bank robbers, had never been used against overseas security contractors working for the USA government.
The incident brought anger at US involvement in the Middle East to a head, and many objected to the use of private military contracting in the war zone.
The organization couldn't survive the public fallout following the 2007 incident, and founder Erik Prince later sold the company.
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