Sat Aug 5, 2017 10:5PM
From left: Paul A. Slough; Dustin L. Heard; Evan S. Liberty; Nicholas A. Slatten. (Photos by AP)
From left: Paul A. Slough; Dustin L. Heard; Evan S. Liberty; Nicholas A. Slatten. (Photos by AP)

A federal appeals court in the United States has overturned lengthy prison sentences for three former Blackwater Worldwide mercenaries and ordered a new trial for a fourth involved in the 2007 killings of more than a dozen of unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children.

The Blackwater employees had been charged with killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others using gunfire and grenades at a busy Baghdad intersection on September 16, 2007. An FBI agent once described the atrocity as the “My Lai massacre of Iraq.”

Three mercenaries Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough were convicted in 2014 of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter and using a machine gun – a military weapon -- to carry out an atrocity. 

They were sentenced to 30 years in prison. They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony.

A fourth mercenary, Nicholas A. Slatten, was convicted of murder and received a life sentence.

On Friday, the three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Slatten to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, despite the fact that Slatten fired the first shots in the massacre.

The court also found that the 30-year terms of the three other convicts violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“We are gratified that the Court recognized the gross injustice of the 30-year mandatory minimum sentences,” Heard’s attorney, David Schertler, said in a statement. Attorneys for the three other men refused to respond to the ruling.

An Iraqi traffic policeman inspects a car destroyed in an incident involving a Blackwater security detail in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in September 2007. (Photo by AP) 

A large number of Iraqi witnesses had testified in the case in what the Justice Department said was likely to be "the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the United States for a criminal trial."

Blackwater Worldwide, which is now known as Academi and is based in McLean, Virginia, is the most notorious private security firm that had operated in Iraq.

Many Iraqis believe the US military allowed Blackwater mercenaries to commit numerous war crimes against their compatriots with impunity.