US court tosses murder conviction of ex-Blackwater guard

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday threw out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three of his former colleagues to be re-sentenced in the high-profile prosecution stemming from the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered a new trial after tossing out the murder conviction of former security contractor Nicholas Slatten.

The three-judge panel said Slatten should have had a separate trial instead of being tried alongside his former colleagues. At a new trial, Slatten would be able to introduce evidence that one of his co-defendants had fired the first shot.

Separately, the court said Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, who were all convicted of manslaughter and other offenses over their respective roles in the incident, should be re-sentenced because their 30-year prison terms were too long. The court also threw out one of Liberty's convictions for attempted manslaughter.

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An Iraqi policeman stands by the bullet riddled car of two women allegedly shot dead by private security guards in central Baghdad, 09 October 2007. Foreign security guards killed two women when they opened fire on a car in the centre of the Iraqi capital today, witnesses and Iraqi security officials said. The shooting in Karrada came two days after Iraq vowed to punish US security firm Blackwater after a probe found that its guards were not provoked when they opened 'deliberate' fire in Baghdad three weeks ago, killing 17 Iraqis. It was not clear which security company was involved in Tuesday's shooting, which occurred at the Masbar intersection in Karrada, a commercial and residential district which is regarded as one of the most secure in Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEF (Photo credit should read ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows the blood stained and bullet riddled car of two women allegedly shot dead by private security guards in central Baghdad, 09 October 2007. Foreign security guards killed two women when they opened fire on a car in the centre of the Iraqi capital today, witnesses and Iraqi security officials said. The shooting in Karrada came two days after Iraq vowed to punish US security firm Blackwater after a probe found that its guards were not provoked when they opened 'deliberate' fire in Baghdad three weeks ago, killing 17 Iraqis. It was not clear which security company was involved in today's shooting, which occurred at the Masbar intersection in Karrada, a commercial and residential district which is regarded as one of the most secure in Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEF (Photo credit should read ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images)
US Federal Prosecutors Ken Cole is surrounded by Iraqi security as he arrives for a meeting to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man who was wounded in a shooting attack by the security guards of Blackwater firm on Sunday, is helped by his relatives in a hospital in Baghdad, September 20, 2007. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggested on Wednesday the U.S. embassy stop using American security firm Blackwater after a deadly shooting, saying he would not allow Iraqis to be killed in "cold blood". REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz (IRAQ)
Blackwater Worldwide security guards Evan Liberty (L) and Dustin Heard (R) leave the federal courthouse with their legal team and supporters after being arraigned with 3 fellow Blackwater guards on manslaughter charges for allegedly killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, in Washington, January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)
An Iraqi woman whose husband was killed sits with her children listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark Hulkower (C) and fellow defense attorneys speak to members of the media outside of the U.S. District Court after five Blackwater security guards were charged with killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 8, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Detrick (UNITED STATES)
An Iraqi woman, relative of a victim, sits listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi injured and relatives of killed Iraqis, all victims of a shooting incident, sits listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: Supporters of Blackwater guards, who are to be sentenced today, gather outside the E. Barrett Prettyman US Court House in Washington, D.C., April 13, 2015. The four Blackwater guards face sentences of decades to life for 2007 shootings that killed or injured 31 unarmed Iraqis in Baghdad's Nisour Square, setting off crisis in relations between the US and Iraq and criticism over accountability of US security contractors. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
An Iraqi victim of a shooting incident holds up a picture of himself, during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi woman peeps inside a blood stained car of two women allegedly shot dead by private security guards in central Baghdad, 09 October 2007. Foreign security guards killed two women when they opened fire on a car in the centre of the Iraqi capital today, witnesses and Iraqi security officials said. The shooting in Karrada came two days after Iraq vowed to punish US security firm Blackwater after a probe found that its guards were not provoked when they opened 'deliberate' fire in Baghdad three weeks ago, killing 17 Iraqis. It was not clear which security company was involved in today's shooting, which occurred at the Masbar intersection in Karrada, a commercial and residential district which is regarded as one of the most secure in Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEF (Photo credit should read ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi victim of a shooting incident sits listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 06: Former Blackwater security guard Nick Slatten (C) and his lawyer Thomas Connolly (L) leave an arraignment hearing at U.S. district court on January 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. Slatten and four other former guards pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter in the killing of at least 14 unarmed Iraqis. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
A US soldier stands guard at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, 17 September 2007. Iraq today ordered the cancellation of the operating licence of US security firm Blackwater after it was involved in a shootout in Baghdad that killed eight people, a senior offical told AFP. AFP PHOTO/WISSAM AL-OKAILI (Photo credit should read WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images)
Three Iraqi traffic policemen, witnesses to a shooting incident, sit in the front row listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Three Iraqi traffic policemen, witnesses to a shooting incident, sit listening during a meeting with US Federal Prosecutors to discuss the case against the security firm Blackwater at the central police station close to Nussur Square in central Baghdad on December 13, 2008. Three U.S. federal prosecutors met today in Baghdad with the families of victims and wounded from the shooting last September 2007 at Nussur Square by security officers from the US based Blackwater Security Company. Five Blackwater guards were charged on December 08, with the killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others with gunfire and grenades while traveling in a convoy through a busy Baghdad intersection in September 2007. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 06: Former Blackwater security guard Donald Ball (C) and his lawyer Steven McCool (L) leave arraignment at U.S. district court on January 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. Ball and four other former guards pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter in the killing of at least 14 unarmed Iraqis. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Hair is seen on the bullet riddled and blood stained windscreen of a car of two women allegedly shot dead by private security guards in central Baghdad, 09 October 2007. Foreign security guards killed two women when they opened fire on a car in the centre of the Iraqi capital today, witnesses and Iraqi security officials said. The shooting in Karrada came two days after Iraq vowed to punish US security firm Blackwater after a probe found that its guards were not provoked when they opened 'deliberate' fire in Baghdad three weeks ago, killing 17 Iraqis. It was not clear which security company was involved in today's shooting, which occurred at the Masbar intersection in Karrada, a commercial and residential district which is regarded as one of the most secure in Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEF (Photo credit should read ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images)
Joseph Persichini Jr., (C), FBI Assistant Director in Charge, delivers remarks after the announcement of a 35-count indictment on five Blackwater security guards during a news conference in Washington December 8, 2008. The U.S. Justice Department charged the men on Monday with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and weapons violations. Also at the news conference are Jeffrey Taylor, (L), U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and Patrick Rowan (R), Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's National Security Division. REUTERS/Mitch Dumke (UNITED STATES)
Blackwater Worldwide security guard Nick Slatten (C) leaves the federal courthouse after being arraigned with 4 fellow Blackwater guards on manslaughter charges for allegedly killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, in Washington, January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)
A woman whose husband was killed during a shooting by employees of U.S. security firm Blackwater, sits next to her daughter while attending a meeting with prosecutors and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials in Baghdad December 13, 2008. Some of the Iraqi victims of a shooting by security guards working for U.S. security firm Blackwater expressed hope that justice will be done after meeting U.S. federal prosecutors in Baghdad on Saturday. REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)
Blackwater Worldwide security guards Donald Ball (L) and Dustin Heard (2nd R) leave the federal courthouse with their supporters after being arraigned with 3 fellow Blackwater guards on manslaughter charges for allegedly killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, in Washington, January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)
Blackwater Worldwide security guards Donald Ball (2nd L) and Dustin Heard (R) leave the federal courthouse with their legal team and supporters after being arraigned with three fellow Blackwater guards on manslaughter charges for allegedly killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad, in Washington January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)
A woman stands next to her relative, who was wounded in a shooting attack by the security guards of Blackwater firm on Sunday, in a hospital in Baghdad September 20, 2007. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggested on Wednesday the U.S. embassy stop using American security firm Blackwater after a deadly shooting, saying he would not allow Iraqis to be killed in "cold blood". REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz (IRAQ)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 06: Former Blackwater security guard Dustin Heard (C) and his attorney David Schertler (L) leave arraignment at U.S. district court on January 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. Heard and four other former guards pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter in the killing of at least 14 unarmed Iraqis. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
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The Justice Department declined to comment. Lawyers for the defendants could not immediately be reached.

The Sept. 16, 2007, incident stood out for its brutality even in a city in a grip of a bitter sectarian war and sparked debate over the role of private security contractors working for the U.S. government in war zones.

A heavily armed, four-truck Blackwater Worldwide convoy the men were traveling in had been trying to clear a path for U.S. diplomats after a nearby car bomb.

At Nisur Square, the four guards opened fire on the Iraqis, including women and children, with machine guns and grenade launchers. In addition to the 14 dead, another 17 Iraqis were wounded.

Slatten's murder conviction was for shooting dead the driver of a white Kia car that had stopped at the traffic circle.

The Justice Department's case against Slatten, "hinged on his having fired the first shots, his animosity toward the Iraqis having led him to target the white Kia unprovoked," the court said in the unsigned ruling.

But the statements made by the unnamed co-defendant immediately afterward that he fired the first shot "strike at the heart of that theory and instead point to the co-defendant, not Slatten," the court said.

The defendants were convicted in October 2014. Slatten had been sentenced to life in prison.

Blackwater was later sold and is now operating as Virginia-based Academi.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir, editing by G Crosse)

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