Prosecutor Anthony Asuncion urged a federal jury this week to convict 4 former Blackwater guards in the shootings of more than 30 Iraqi civilians, 14 were killed.  In closing arguments, for the trial that began in June, the prosecution said that the 4 guards “took something that didn’t belong to them”, the lives of human beings and the health of those who are still suffering from their wounds.  The Iraqi civilians never stood a chance against the security guards’ machine guns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles.  However, the prosecution told jurors, an American courtroom “levels the playing field.”

Blackwater, a private security group, was contracted by the U.S. State Department to provide security to diplomatic envoys during the Iraq War.  According to prosecutors, the 4 Blackwater guards unleashed unprovoked gunfire on civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad on September 16, 2007.  Iraqis are skeptical that an American court would ever convict the former members of Blackwater Worldwide.  Blackwater once had lucrative contracts with and ties to the George W. Bush administration.  The Justice Department and the White House hope that the trial will allay those concerns.  The shooting has helped to inflame anti-American sentiment abroad and presents both national security and diplomatic issues at a time when Iraq’s government is transitional and the United States is performing airstrikes on militants and terrorists.

Asuncion said that a jurors job “is a search for truth” in the wake of shattered lives.

Defense lawyers argued to the jury that the 4 men were acting in self-defense after being fired upon by insurgents.  The defense strategy is to create reasonable doubt about the happenings of that day, show the jury the level of confusion in a war zone, and to tell the jury that all excessive force was the fault of Jeremy Ridgeway.  Ridgeway, a member of the same Blackwater squad, pled guilty to manslaughter and testified against his former colleagues.

“That’s not on [the defendants],” the defense said, “That’s [on] Jeremy Ridgeway…[Their] star witness.”

Nicholas Slatten faces first-degree murder, Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, and Evan Liberty face voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and gun charges.  Slatten faces life in prison if convicted.  The other 3 defendants face a mandatory minimum of 30 years, if convicted.  There is little dispute over the basic facts of the case.  Blackwater contractors working for the U.S. State Department drove 4 armored trucks to Nisoor Square and opened fire.  Prosecutors say it was a murderous rampage, defense attorneys say they were responding to what they saw as legitimate threats.

Brian Heberlig, Slough’s attorney, spent most of his closing argument talking about potential evidence of a firefight.  Several witnesses heard AK-47s, which are not used by Blackwater.  Radio logs show reports that the convoy was taking fire.  One of the Blackwater trucks had bullet holes in it.  A taxi had its window blown out from the direction which the defendants said they were taking fire.  The defense presented photos of AK-47 shells found in the traffic circle.

“Shell casings on the streets of Baghdad are about as common as seashells at the beach,” the prosecution responded to all efforts by the defense to use the casings to prove self-defense, “They are scattered all over the place. The defense [is desperate]…”

Asuncion, whose closing argument lasted 3 hours, said that even if jurors believed there was a legitimate gunfight that day, nothing justified a massacre of civilians by Blackwater.  When the shooting stopped it was clear that none of the victims were insurgents.

“Why shoot all of these people who are running away?” he asked, “Why shoot women and children who are unarmed?”

The prosecution of the Blackwater guards has not been smooth.  Prosecutors had to drop charges against another guard on the squad because of lack of evidence.  There were allegations that the State Department had fabricated shell casings at the scene to protect Blackwater.  The State Department even granted the contractors limited immunity to the guards after the shooting, further inflaming the international public and stalling the Justice Department’s investigation.  In addition, it is impossible to say which defendants killed which victims.  Prosecutors are instead pursuing their case on the pretense that each contractor firing at the civilians created a responsibility for all the deaths as a whole.

The defense wants the jury to “judge [the defendants] on their own shots.”

The defense also told the jury that the Iraqi national police removed shell casings from the scene that would have proven that Blackwater guards were being fired upon by insurgents, prompting them to fire back, where over 30 civilians were caught in the crossfire. The Iraqi police deny this allegation.

“We will never know the extent to which Iraqi national police scrubbed the scene” of evidence that Blackwater guards were fired on, said Brian Heberlig.

Blackwater team leader Jimmy Watson told the jury that he heard a “pop”, which sounded to him like an AK-47 round before Slatten fired twice at the beginning of the violence.  The prosecution pointed out to the jury that Watson had never before said that.

“It’s different when your former associates “are looking you in the eye” in an open courtroom, Asuncion said.

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