AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A federal judge has handed down stiff sentences in the case of four Blackwater security contractors. They were involved in a deadly 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. One guard was ordered to spend the rest of his life behind bars, and three others have been sentenced to 30-year prison terms. NPR's Carrie Johnson was in the courtroom, and she's with us now to talk about the case. And, Carrie, it's unusual to think of 30-year sentences as light, but prosecutors had asked the judge to essentially throw the book at these former Blackwater guards, right? And they wanted them to get 50 years each in prison.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One of these men, Nicholas Slatten, was accused and convicted of first degree murder, Audie. That was an open-and-shut life sentence - not much argument there. But for the other three former Blackwater guards, there had been a big fight over how much time they would need to spend in prison. The essence of the problem is that the Justice Department decided to charge these guys with a weapons offense that carried a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence, which would keep them in prison into their 40s, 50s and 60s and beyond, not to mention manslaughter and other charges they faced and were convicted of.
The defense lawyers for these guys said they had clean records, they were unlikely to ever do anything like this again, and they got some headway with the judge. The judge gave them just 30-year sentences as opposed to 50 or more years because he thought that they were fine young men who just panicked in the heat of battle. But he said the large number of victims involved and the seriousness of this case, Audie, meant the judge needed to send a message.
CORNISH: Now, in making their case, the prosecution tried to essentially reconstruct what happened during the shooting in a Baghdad traffic square. Fourteen people were killed. Seventeen more were injured. And I understand that some of the survivors actually traveled to the federal court house to make statements.
JOHNSON: They did, Audie - some of this victims and some of the relatives of people who died. The prosecutors called what happened in that square an atrocity, and the mood in the courtroom clearly reflected that. The father of a nine-year-old boy named Ali spoke. He asked the court to teach these defendants a lesson and deliver a lesson for history. Then the boy's mother spoke. She said, through a translator, why did these guards kill my son? Why did they do this to me? Finally, two brothers of this nine-year-old spoke. One of them said Blackwater came to Iraq as a security contractor, but it didn't secure anything. The mood was so stark, Audie, that one defense lawyer turned to the family and apologized. Another said the case would haunt all of them for the rest of their lives.
CORNISH: But I understand there was also a big turnout in support of the Blackwater guards.
JOHNSON: Unbelievable turnout. About 100 people, friends, relatives, former military service members of these fellows. Many were wearing black T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the Blackwater logo. And they stood up repeatedly in support of the men. Some of the people who served as character witnesses at the sentencing for these four guards cried. The defense lawyers cried. At one point, Audie, the judge even broke up and had to take a moment to collect himself. He said he'd never seen anything like this level of support, but he said the overall wild thing that happened here in Iraq cannot ever be condoned by a court.
CORNISH: So after eight years of this case moving through the U.S. justice system, what happens next?
JOHNSON: Well, the defendants maintained their innocence, and as a result, they didn't fall on the mercy of the court like some defendants do at sentencing time. They all got up and spoke. They were wearing navy blue prison jumpsuits since they've been incarcerated, since the jury verdict last year. And all of them say they had reason to believe they were in danger. They were being shot at in that square in the heat of the moment. They had been laying the groundwork for an appeal. The strongest issue they may have, according to legal experts, is that the U.S. government didn't have jurisdiction over their actions in Iraq because they were working for the State Department, not the Pentagon as the U.S. law provides, they say.
CORNISH: That NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.