WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a sweeping victory for the U.S. government, a federal jury on Wednesday found four former Blackwater guards guilty on nearly every count they faced in connection with the 2007 killing of 14 unarmed Iraqis at a Baghdad traffic circle.
Jurors found three of the ex-guards guilty of manslaughter and weapons charges, and a fourth guilty of murder.
The verdict comes more than seven years after the shooting incident that outraged Iraqis and inflamed anti-American sentiment around the world.
A court clerk read the jury’s verdict aloud on Wednesday around noon to a packed courtroom, repeating the word “guilty” 71 times as the defendants sat and listened silently.
Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in connection with at least 12 deaths at Nisur Square, where the Blackwater unit had been trying to clear a path for a U.S. State Department convoy. The Washington jury also found the three guilty of attempted manslaughter in connection with the wounding of at least 11 Iraqis who had been at the site.
The fourth guard, Nicholas Slatten, was found guilty of murder in connection with the first death at the circle.
The 2007 shooting stood out for its brazenness, even during a war replete with grisly incidents, and raised questions about the rules governing security contractors working overseas for the U.S. government.
Mohamad al-Quraishy, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, came to court to hear the jury’s verdict and said the Iraqi people had been closely monitoring the trial hoping that the guards would be convicted.
“They will welcome this decision,” he said.
Wednesday’s verdict follows more than seven weeks of deliberations during which jurors considered nearly 100 different questions.
During more than two months of trial, prosecutors flew family members of some of the victims to the United States to testify, and drew on the testimony of the other guards in the unit.
The government sought to portray the indicted guards as recklessly unleashing their massive firepower, including multiple grenades not designed to be used in urban areas, on innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children.
Lawyers for the guards had argued that while the loss of life was unfortunate, the men were operating in a volatile war zone and used their weapons at Nisur Square only in response to incoming fire and a vehicle that appeared to be a car bomb.
The defendants’ lawyers presented only four of their own witnesses at trial, but extensively cross-examined government witnesses and had tried to draw attention to inconsistencies in the testimony.
In the end, the jury did not acquit any of the defendants on a single count. It was unable to reach a decision on a few counts, leading to a mistrial on those counts.
Much of the case turned on whether the unit was actually facing incoming fire, or whether a white Kia realistically appeared to be a car bomb bearing down on the convoy. Slatten had been charged with the murder of the driver of the car.
When jurors heard closing arguments in the case in August, prosecutor Anthony Asuncion told them that on Sept. 16, 2007, there were “no insurgents, no AK-47s, just people seeking shelter from these men.”
Slatten faces a life sentence on the murder charge. The other three face at least 30 years in prison based on the gun charge they were all convicted on, though defense lawyers are likely to appeal the verdict.
Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha and Julia Edwards; editing by Susan Heavey, Eric Walsh and G Crosse