« Public policy groups promote a "Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond" with recommendations for criminal justice reform | Main | Some summer criminal justice highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform »

September 6, 2019

After gun mandatories deemed unconstitutionally severe, former Blackwater guards get much lower terms at federal resentencing

This New York Times article, headlined "Three Ex-Blackwater Guards Are Resentenced in Iraq War Massacre," reports on high-profile resentencings that followed a (too-rare) ruling that the application of a severe federal mandatory minimum statute violated the Eighth Amendment.  The DC Circuit's significant Eighth Amendment ruling from 2017 is discussed in this post, and here is part of the press report on the resentencing:

Three former Blackwater security contractors were sentenced on Thursday to roughly half of their original 30-year prison terms for the deadly 2007 shooting of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, widely seen as one of the darkest moments of the Iraq war.

The three former contractors — Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough — had been convicted in 2014 of multiple counts of manslaughter for their roles in the massacre.  But in 2017, a federal appeals court vacated their sentences, saying the trial judge, Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, erred in invoking a law that requires 30-year sentences for such offenses that involve machine guns....

Prosecutors on Thursday nevertheless asked Judge Lamberth to resentence Mr. Slough to 30 years, and the other two men to slightly less.  Defense lawyers asked him to instead sentence their clients to the roughly five years they had already served.  The three defendants, dressed in orange prison garb, asked to be sent home to their families.

But after a hearing that lasted most of the day and played out before a courtroom packed with dozens of family members, friends and other supporters of the men, the judge rejected those ideas. He instead sentenced Mr. Heard to 12 years and seven months; Mr. Liberty to 14 years; and Mr. Slough to 15 years. In the United States, Judge Lamberth said, “We hold our armed forces and our contractors accountable for their actions.”...

The government had hired Blackwater Security to escort State Department officials through a chaotic war zone in Iraq.  Shortly after the convoy pulled into Nisour Square, the contractors began shooting civilians with machine guns and firing grenades. While the contractors claimed they had come under fire by insurgents, prosecutors said — and a jury agreed — that the evidence showed there had been no incoming fire.

Prosecutors at the hearing on Thursday emphasized that the firing went on for 20 minutes, indicating that a moment of panic had turned into reckless disregard for human life. But they acknowledged that the security contractors had stopped firing at different times.  Prosecutors said that Mr. Slough was jointly responsible for 13 of the deaths and 17 of the wounded, Mr. Liberty for eight of the deaths and 11 of the wounded, and Mr. Heard for six of deaths and 11 of the wounded.

The jury found that the chaotic hail of machine-gun fire and grenades targeting civilians began when another contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, shot the driver of a white Kia without provocation. Mr. Slatten was retried and convicted of first-degree murder last year, and Judge Lamberth sentenced him last month to life in prison.

During the hearing, Judge Lamberth praised the character of the three defendants before him, calling them “fine young men” but for the aberration of their poor judgment and reckless actions in Nisour Square. But he said he had to balance that assessment against the significant loss of life that resulted from their recklessness and poor judgment, as well as the need to uphold the rule of law.

While the defense objected to the sentences, making clear that another appeal was likely, they and the judge also discussed the possibility that he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that it waive certain security restrictions associated with manslaughter convictions.  If those are waived, the three could benefit from a rule permitting certain inmates with less than 10 years left on their sentences to serve the remainder in minimum-security prison camps....

One of the legal issues facing the judge was prosecutors’ contention that each of the defendants should receive an additional 10 years under the law that enhances penalties for crimes involving the use of a firearm.  Defense lawyers said that law should not apply to a war zone case for the same reason that the appeals court rejected the use of the machine-gun law in the case, and Judge Lamberth agreed with the defense.

Still, the judge also quoted lines from the appeals court’s 2017 opinion saying the defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they had caused: “We by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty’s actions.  Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.  What happened in Nisour Square defies civilized description.”

Prior related post:

September 6, 2019 at 08:55 AM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB