WASHINGTON - A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the manslaughter case against five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of spraying innocent Iraqis with machine-gun fire can continue.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina denied two motions to dismiss the case against the five men accused in a September 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead and another 20 wounded in a busy Baghdad intersection.
The five argued that they are not subject to U.S. civilian criminal laws because they were working overseas under a contract with the State Department to help provide security for diplomats. A legal loophole says only contractors who work for or support the Defense Department can be prosecuted in U.S. courts for crimes committed overseas.
Defense attorney Mark Hulkower pointed out that President Barack Obama, who now overseas the Justice Department that is prosecuting the case, sponsored a bill while a senator to close the loophole so State Department contractors could be prosecuted in U.S. courts. "But that hasn't occurred yet," Hulkower said.
Federal prosecutors argued the men were supporting the work of the Defense Department by helping to create a stable, self-governing Iraq. They said they would offer evidence at trial that their employment supported the Defense Department.
Urbina sided with prosecutors and agreed that the issue should be heard at trial. But he noted that the "defendants' points on this issue are rather strong" and predicted it would be an issue that either he or a jury would decide later.
The five defendants - all decorated military veterans - are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. The machine-gun charge, typically used in drug cases, carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.
The trial is scheduled to begin in a year against ex-Marines Donald Ball of West Valley City, Utah, Dustin Heard of Knoxville, Tenn., and Evan Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; and Army veterans Nick Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough of Keller, Texas. All five were present at Tuesday's hearing, but none of them spoke.
Lawyers for the five men also argued that the case should be dismissed because it was improperly filed in Washington, where none of them lives. They suggested the case be handled in Utah. The judge dismissed that argument as well.
Blackwater has not been charged in the case. It announced Friday that it was changing its name to Xe, which is pronounced like the letter "z," to help repair damage to its reputation.
The Iraqi government has labeled the guards "criminals" and is closely watching the case. The shooting strained relations between Washington and Baghdad and fueled the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. Many Iraqis saw it as a demonstration of American brutality and arrogance.
The shooting took place around noon on Sept. 16, 2007, in the crowded Nisoor Square. Prosecutors said civilians were running errands, getting lunch and otherwise going about their lives. Iraqi witnesses said the contractors opened fire unprovoked and left the square littered with blown-out cars.
But the Blackwater guards contend they were ambushed by insurgents. Blackwater radio logs made available to The Associated Press by a defense attorney in the case describe a hectic eight minutes in which the guards repeatedly reported incoming gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police.