A U.S. judge on Monday handed down lengthy prison terms to four former Blackwater guards convicted in the 2007 massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqis, potentially closing a chapter of the U.S. war in Iraq that tested relations between the two countries.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced former Blackwater security guard Nicholas Slatten to life in prison. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were sentenced to 30 years each for voluntary and attempted manslaughter.
Lamberth earlier on Monday rejected a defense motion to impose lesser sentences on the four, as well as a motion by prosecutors to increase the penalties.
Lamberth had deferred formally imposing the sentences while hearing arguments from both sides on the sentencing. Defense lawyers argued for mercy, but prosecutors said the men have never shown remorse or accepted responsibility.
All four were convicted in October for their involvement in the killings in Nisour Square, a crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad. The legal fight over the killings, which caused an international uproar, has spanned years.
Prosecutors have described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians, though defense lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire, and shot back in self-defense.
The defense argued for mercy Monday by saying that decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh punishments for men who operated in a stressful environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties.
The firearms convictions alone carried mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years in prison. The government sought sentences far beyond that, partly because it said the men have never shown remorse or accepted responsibility.
The sentencing is unlikely to bring an end to the legal wrangling, which began even before the guards were first charged in 2008. A judge later dismissed the case before trial, but a federal appeals court revived it, and the guards were indicted again in October 2013.
Even before the trial began, defense lawyers had identified multiple issues as likely to form the basis of an appeal, including whether there was proper legal jurisdiction to charge them in the first place.
The statute under which they were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers the overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees, military contractors and others who are supporting U.S. war missions. But defense lawyers note that the Blackwater defendants worked as State Department contractors and were in Iraq to provide diplomatic, not military, services.
The legal fighting continued in the days leading up to sentencing, too, with defense lawyers seeking Friday to postpone the hearing after receiving new information — a victim impact statement from a trial witness — that they said was favorable to the defense. Lamberth denied the request, saying there was no need to delay the sentencing.