WASHINGTON (AP) — Rejecting pleas for mercy, a federal judge on Monday sentenced former Blackwater security guard Nicholas Slatten to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others.
The carnage in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, a crowded traffic circle, caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone and remains one of the low points of the war in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced Slatten, who witnesses said was the first to fire shots in the melee, to life on a charge of first-degree murder. The three other guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were each sentenced to 30 years and one day in prison for charges that included manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using firearms while committing a felony.
Lawyers for the men said they planned to appeal.
In their first public statements since the shooting, the former contractors — appearing in leg shackles and prison garb — insisted they are innocent.
"I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I did anything wrong," Heard told the judge.
"I feel utterly betrayed by the same government I served honorably," Slough said.
But Lamberth said he fully agreed with the jury's guilty verdicts last October and praised the Justice Department and the FBI for investigating the shooting and putting the truth "out there for the world to see."
"The overall wild thing that went on here just cannot ever be condoned by the court," Lamberth said.
Lamberth announced the sentences after a daylong hearing at which defense lawyers had argued for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients. At the same time, prosecutors asked that those sentences — the minimums mandatory under the law — be made even harsher. He rejected both requests.
Nearly 100 friends and relatives packed the courtroom to show support for the men, with many openly weeping throughout the proceedings. Several came to the podium, some choking back tears, to speak glowingly of the men they knew as role models and patriots who only wanted to help serve their country.
Lamberth appeared moved by the outpouring of support, saying it was clear to him that "these fine young men just panicked."
Prosecutors described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said the men haven't shown remorse or taken responsibility. Defense lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defense.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Martin urged the court to consider the gravity of the crime as well as the sheer number of dead and wounded and "count every victim."
"These four men have refused to accept virtually any responsibility for their crimes and the blood they shed that day," Martin said.
Video monitors in the courtroom showed photos of the dead and wounded, as well as images of cars that were riddled with bullets or blown up with grenade launchers fired by the Blackwater guards.
The defense argued for mercy, saying decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a stressful, war-torn environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties. They also argued the guards were using weapons that had been issued by the U.S. State Department for their protection.
"The punishment should be within the limits of civilized standards," defense attorney David Schertler said.
But Lamberth said he would not deviate from the mandatory minimum sentences, noting that similarly stiff penalties have been applied to police officers who commit crimes while carrying automatic weapons as part of their jobs.
Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq spoke in halting English about the death of his 9-year-old son as a picture of the smiling boy, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, was shown on courtroom monitors. He demanded the court show Blackwater "what the law is" and claimed many American soldiers died "because of what Blackwater did."
"What's the difference between these criminals and terrorists?" Razzaq said.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney's office said the case shows "that the FBI will investigate violations of U.S. law no matter where they occur in order to bring justice to innocent victims."
Slatten, 31, is from Sparta, Tennessee; Slough, 35, from Keller, Texas; Liberty, 32, from Rochester, New Hampshire; and Heard, 33, from Maryville, Tennessee.
The sentencing was unlikely to bring an end to the legal wrangling, which began even before the guards were first charged in 2008. A judge later dismissed the case before trial, but a federal appeals court revived it and the guards were indicted again in October 2013.
Even before the trial began, defense lawyers had identified multiple issues as likely forming the basis of an appeal, including whether there was proper legal jurisdiction to charge the defendants in the first place.
The law under which they were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers the overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees, military contractors and others who are supporting the American war mission. But defense lawyers note that the Blackwater defendants worked as State Department contractors and were in Iraq to provide diplomatic, not military, services.