Five Blackwater security contractors charged last month in a 35 count indictment on manslaughter and federal firearms charges pleaded not guilty Tuesday at their arraignment.
The men were charged for shooting as many as 34 Iraqi civilians in a September 2007 incident in Nisoor Square which has been portrayed by prosecutors as being a massacre. At the hearing U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina acknowledged that the trial will be complex with many witnesses coming from overseas and set a trial date for January 29, 2010.
The 5 Blackwater guards Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Donald Ball were part of a Blackwater security unit called Raven 23 which consisted of 19 Blackwater guards.
During the September 16, 2007 incident the convoy was responding to a car bomb explosion near a separate Blackwater security team who was guarding a State Department protectee. The Raven 23 team entered the Nisoor Square area and set up roadblocks, when a white Kia sedan entered the square. The government alleges that the Blackwater guards opened fire on the vehicle and then turned their weapons on the Iraqi civilians and even fired grenades into a nearby girls school. In all 17 Iraqis were killed, the guards have been charged with killing 14 individuals.
The 5 defendants all stood before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina when the not guilty pleas were entered. After the arraignment defense attorney David Schertler said outside the courthouse, "We want to make it clear to everyone that these men committed no crime. They were defending themselves on a battlefield in a war zone when this occurred. We are looking forward to the opportunity to go to trial."
The Secret Plea Deal
The case investigated by federal prosecutors and the FBI made a critical turning point when one of the members of the Raven 23 team, Jeremy Ridgeway, agreed to testify against the 5 Blackwater guards.
Ridgeway, 35, agreed to plead guilty in November in a secret deal offered by prosecutors to one count of manslaughter, attempt to commit murder and aiding and abetting. Details of the Justice Department's plea agreement with Ridgeway will be made public in 90 days after the defense lawyers for the 5 men requested that they receive copies of the agreement as well as transcripts from two plea hearings held at the federal court in Washington.
The defense lawyers said today that Ridgeway was a joint offender and wanted to know the terms of his plea deal with the government. The defense team also said today that they believed the grand jury which indicted the men was still convened and was reviewing evidence which could lead to superseding charges in the case. Kohl said he could not discuss the matter publicly and held a sidebar bench conference with Judge Urbina about the grand jury continuing the investigation.
Defense attorneys for the men have asked for a later trial date than the government's request to have the anticipated four week trial begin in the fall of 2009. The defense lawyers cited a need to delay the proceeding because of the large volume of evidence the government has collected during the investigation and the need for some of the defense lawyers to obtain security clearances.
Ken Kohl the lead prosecutor on the case said there was no need to delay till 2010 and told Judge Urbina, "This is a straightforward shooting of a lot of people. There are not a lot of issues of classified intelligence."
It is expected that the defense lawyers will argue the authority of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), the statute the prosecutors used to bring the charges. "This is an unprecedented prosecution," Schertler said after the hearing.
Asked why it would take over a year to get to trial Schertler said, "The United States Government had a year and a half to investigate the case and we did not, so we need a year to catch up."
The guards could face a mandatory 30-year prison sentence if found guilty of the charges they shot unarmed civilians with machine guns.