Controversial case, which will go to jury next week, is one of few in which US forces have been tried for civilian deaths in Iraq
This 2007 photo shows an Iraqi traffic policeman inspecting a car destroyed by the Blackwater security detail in al-Nisoor Square. Photograph: Khalid Mohammed /AP
One of the darkest days of the US occupation of Iraq was relived in a Washington courtroom on Wednesday as the prosecution of four Blackwater security contractors accused of killing 14 civilians in a mistaken attack in Baghdad reached an emotional and legal climax.
Seven years after the bloody shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left a total of 17 Iraqis dead and more than 20 seriously wounded, jurors were told of the “shocking amount of death, injury and destruction” that saw “innocent men, women and children mowed down” by private guards working for the US State Department.
In closing arguments, assistant US attorney Anthony Asuncion claimed three of the four defendants were guilty of manslaughter and a fourth of murder for showing extreme disregard for human life in retaliating against what they mistakenly believed was a car bomb attack on their convoy.
But the defence summed up its case with a blistering attack on the government for ignoring evidence of alleged incoming machine gun fire at the convoy, which it also accused Iraqi police of helping to cover up.
The controversial case, which will go to the jury next week, is one of the few in which US forces have been tried for civilian deaths in Iraq and has already been abandoned once after an earlier judge questioned the way evidence was gathered.
But federal prosecutors pulled no punches on Wednesday as the closing stages of the second trial, which has lasted for 10 weeks, saw emotional scenes from attorneys on both sides.
Pointing at the four accused – Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard – Asuncion said: “These men took something that did not belong to them; the lives of 14 human beings ... they were turned into bloody bullet-riddled corpses at the hands of these men.”
After he described at length the fate of individual Iraqi civilians attacked by the Blackwater convoy, Asuncion’s voice was shaking, and he was asked to repeat a key line for the court stenographer to hear. “[The witness] opened the door and his son’s brains fell out at his feet,” Asuncio told the jury a second time. “As [the witness] put it, ‘the world went dark for me’.”
Dozens of witnesses and relatives from Iraq have been flown over for the trial, some showing jurors the scars on their bodies and giving evidence that caused one juror to be recused after she said she could no longer sleep at night.
“It must have seemed like the apocalypse was here,” said Asuncion in his closing argument, as he described how many were shot in the back, at long range, or blown up by powerful grenades used by the US contractors.
“There was not a single dead insurgent on the scene,” claimed the prosecutor. “None of these people were armed.”
He also recapped evidence from Blackwater colleagues who testified against the accused, claiming they acted with contempt for Iraqi civilians and boasted of turning “a guy’s head into a canoe” and “popping his grape”.
Earlier in the trial these witnesses had spoken of telling the accused to “cease-fucking-fire” after the attack, which one described as “the most horrible botched thing I have ever seen in my life”.
But defence attorneys argue the men were acting in legitimate self-defence after suspecting a car that was rolling toward them at a busy traffic intersection could contain a bomb.
Brian Heberlig, lawyer for Paul Slough, said the ensuing “hectic firefight” was heightened by an earlier car bomb attack on another Blackwater convoy and accused prosecutors of ignoring witnesses who had spoken of hearing AK-47 fire from possible insurgents in the area.
“I felt I was in the wrong courtroom, he said. “The argument was long on emotion and rhetoric but short on citation of the evidentiary record.”
Heberlig acknowledged that fears of a bomb attack were ultimately misplaced but said the defendants responded with an appropriate escalation of force given what they suspected was happening.
“Perhaps their perception was erroneous, perhaps the [Iraqi police] was trying to help,” he said. “It does appear that this was not a [car bomb], it does appear that this was a medical student and his mother, but our clients did not know that.”
However he ridiculed the prosecution’s suggestion that AK-47 shell casings found near the scene were normal on the streets of the Baghdad – “as common as finding cigarette butts in the streets of a US city or finding sea shells at the beach,” claimed Asuncion – and therefore not necessarily proof of any incoming fire.
“If these were just ‘sea shells’ why, four days later, were the shells no longer there?” asked Herberlig. “We will never know how much [Iraqi police] scrubbed the scene after the attack; what else was gone”.
US District Judge Royce Lamberth told jurors he would probably send them out to consider the case on Tuesday after a day or two more of closing arguments.
Blackwater, which settled a separate civilian claim following the attack, has since been renamed Xe and then Academi in efforts to improve its reputation.
A fifth security guard in the convoy, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to manslaughter before the trial in exchange for a more lenient sentence and was one of two contractors to give evidence against his former colleagues.