Case Against Former Blackwater Contractor Ends in Mistrial

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WASHINGTON — The United States government’s decade-long attempt to prosecute four Blackwater contractors in the shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis in 2007, a case that became a symbol of American power run amok during the Iraq war, was dealt a blow on Wednesday when the retrial of one security guard ended in a hung jury.

The retrial of the former Blackwater contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, was declared a mistrial by Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia after jurors deliberated for 16 days without reaching a verdict.

The deadlocked jury was the latest twist in the government’s saga to hold people to account for the shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, in which at least 31 people were killed or wounded when contractors in armored trucks began firing machine guns and launching grenades into a busy traffic circle.

The firefight was one of the darkest moments of the Iraq war, along with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the civilian massacre in Haditha. It caused strife between Washington and Baghdad, with the Bush White House fighting to keep the contractors from being prosecuted in Iraq and asking Iraqis to trust the American court system.

Mr. Slatten, a former sniper, had been found guilty of murder in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. The Justice Department had successfully argued that Mr. Slatten hated Iraqis and had sparked the shootings when he killed a driver, unprovoked, in a stopped car, as a convoy of Blackwater contractors made its way through traffic. That shot, it argued, set off a hail of gunfire that ended in a chaotic and bloody scene.

But an appeals court in Washington threw out Mr. Slatten’s conviction last year and ordered a retrial. The court said he should not have been prosecuted alongside his three Blackwater colleagues, and that a fellow security guard — who testified that he, not Mr. Slatten, had fired the first shots — harmed the government’s case.

“The government’s case against Slatten hinged on his having fired the first shots,” the court wrote, adding that “the co-defendant’s statements, however, strike at the heart of that theory.”

A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Washington, which tried the case, said prosecutors were reviewing the results of the retrial but had no further comment.

The shooting, which garnered comparisons to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, also prompted calls for the United States military to stop hiring private contractors and helped erode Blackwater’s powerful relationship with the government, including lucrative contracts to work on intelligence operations and protect American diplomats overseas.

During the five-week retrial, prosecutors again alleged that Mr. Slatten had instigated the melee by firing the first shot, unprovoked. His lawyer, Dane Butswinkas, countered with the testimony of Mr. Slatten’s colleague, who contradicted the government by saying he shot first. He also accused the government of withholding evidence, a charge denied by an assistant United States attorney, Patrick Martin.

The retrial jury told Judge Lamberth last week that it was deadlocked, and he asked them to try to reach a verdict after the long Labor Day weekend. The jury of seven women and five men ultimately could not come to a decision.

The same appeals court that demanded a retrial for Mr. Slatten, 34, had also set aside 30-year jail sentences for three of his colleagues, Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough. They were tried alongside Mr. Slatten in 2014 and were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and using a machine gun to carry out a violent crime.

The appeals court said the length of their sentences violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The machine gun charges carried a mandatory 30-year sentence, which was seen within the Justice Department as a controversial charge to bring against the men.

Their resentencings were deferred until after Mr. Slatten’s retrial.

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