[JURIST] Judge Richardo M. Urbina of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] Thursday dismissed [opinion, PDF] voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges against the five Blackwater [JURIST news archive] guards indicted for their involvement in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians [JURIST report] in September 2007. Urbina cited statements of the defendants which he said were given under the threat of job loss and with the promise of immunity. Because of the unconstitutionality of the statements, Urbina determined, prosecutors had to put together a case without them, something they had failed to do, explaining:
The compelled statements of [the] defendants played a determinative role in the government’s decision to focus the prosecution on them. … [It] guided the questioning of witnesses during the investigation, resulted in the discovery of physical evidence and provided the government with a version of events that each defendant was locked into and helped steer the investigation. In sum, far from being unimportant and insubstantial, the defendants’ compelled statements pervaded nearly every aspect of the government’s investigation and prosecution, and the government’s use of those statements appears to have played a critical role in the indictment against each of the defendants. Accordingly, the court declines to excuse the government’s reckless violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights as harmless error.
Prosecutors expressed disappointment [NPR report] with the decision, but have yet to announce whether they will appeal. A spokesman for the Iraqi government has stated [Al Jazeera report] that it will push for an appeal, fearing the decision as it stands will cause a strain in relations between the two countries. The Iraqi government also stated that an independent investigation carried out by the Iraqi investigators had conclusively confirmed the guilt of the defendants.
Prosecutors from the US Department of Justice [official website] dropped manslaughter charges [JURIST report] against one of the defendants in November. Five defendants pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] to manslaughter and weapons charges last January. The five guards were indicted [JURIST report] in December 2008 on charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter, and using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, which carries a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence. A sixth guard pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter for his role in the same incident. The Blackwater incident caused domestic outrage in Iraq and has prompted legal controversy in the US. A Federal Bureau of Investigation [official website] inquiry into the incident concluded that the shootings were unjustified [JURIST report]. Iraq security contractors lost their immunity from prosecution under the new US Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that was approved [JURIST reports] in December 2008.