Judge Throws Out Case Against Blackwater Guards

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A federal judge dismissed all charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards charged in the deadly shooting of civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The judge said the Justice Department's explanations have been contradictory, unbelievable and not credible. Del Quentin Wilber, federal courts reporter for The Washington Post, offers his insight.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Justice Department says it's disappointed today in a federal judge's decision to dismiss all charges against five Blackwater security guards. The security contractors face charges of manslaughter for killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

In an outdoor square two years ago, Blackwater's employees said they fired their weapons in self-defense but Iraqi witnesses said the guards fired indiscriminately at civilians. The incident sparked outrage in Iraq, raising tensions between the Iraqi government and American forces.

Well, joining me now is Del Quentin Wilber with the Washington Post. He's covering today's court dismissal. And, Del, take us back to 2007 incident that resulted in the indictments against the Blackwater guards. What happened?

Mr. DEL QUENTIN WILBER (Reporter, Washington Post): Well, the Blackwater guards were part of a convoy, Raven 23, that was providing security for State Department diplomats under a massive contract Blackwater Worldwide had with the State Department. And there was a shooting. They were providing security and these guards open fire, according to the Justice Department, in unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square, which is a busy bustling square in downtown Baghdad.

The Justice Department said they killed 14 civilians and injured 20 others in a blaze of bullets, grenade explosions that day. And they indicted them in December of last year.

SIEGEL: So why did the federal judge dismiss the government's charges?

Mr. WILBER: They were part of a State Department contract, the Blackwater guards. And in previous shootings, they have given statements. After a shooting like this, they have to give a statement to the State Department investigators. Those statements are generally immunized. Meaning, once I tell the State Department official what I did and what I saw, they can't use that, one, to fire me or, two, for a prosecution against me if I'm willing to give these statements. You know, the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself. So these guys all gave these statements.

Shortly after this when senior officials at the Justice Department realize, wait a minute, we can't use these statements in our prosecution, it will totally taint it. And so, they tried to fix it by using a, quote, taint team and all these other things. But this judge in this 90-page opinion absolutely eviscerated their efforts, saying they were half measures. They didn't work. Clearly, they used these statements in their investigations not only to get charges against the guys, but also to help them find other information.

SIEGEL: So they are right. Again, self-incrimination would be violated by proceeding with this. What's likely to be the fall out from this?

Mr. WILBER: Well, you know, the Justice Department can appeal it and they may. I think it will be very difficult, from the experts I talked to, for them to re-indict this case because basically the judge tears apart their entire case in this 90-page opinion. They could appeal it at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and we'll see what happens there. The fall out as for, you know, the people in Baghdad, we're already hearing from our correspondents there that the victims' families are very upset about this.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. WILBER: Now the lawyers for the guards I've talked to are ecstatic. They can't believe this happened. It's kind of a surprise that the judge would issue this opinion at 4 p.m. on December 31st, right before we all go out for New Year's Eve. And so, the long and short of it is that this is not the last we've heard of this. You know, the Justice Department will have to make a decision to appeal it. We'll probably have a hearing coming up where the judge will invite the parties to come discuss it. So I think it's a definite wound to the government's case, but we don't know what's going to happen next.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Del.

Mr. WILBER: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Del Quentin Wilber, federal courts reporter for the Washington Post.

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