Saturday, January 2, 2010

Charges dismissed against Blackwater guards

Donald Ball, center, of West Valley City, was one of five Blackwater Worldwide security guards indicted in Washington D.C., for the shooting of Iraqi civilians. A federal judge Thrusday dismissed all charges. (Francisco Kjolseth / Tribune file photo)

He was a loving son. An Eagle Scout. A former Marine. A hardworking security guard.

But for the past nine months, Donald Ball has carried the burden of another description: Alleged killer.

No more.

A federal judge has ruled that all charges should be dismissed against the West Valley City man and four other former Blackwater security guards accused in the Sept. 16, 2007, killings of at least 14 unarmed civilians in Baghdad's Nissoor Square.

But while the ruling will likely bring an end to a legal case that has inflamed tensions between the United States and Iraq and ignited debate over the role of private security contractors in U.S. war zones, it does not resolve the question of what happened in the busy traffic circle on that day.

Prosecutors had called the shootings "unprovoked and illegal attacks on civilians." Defense attorneys had said the accused guards were under attack when they opened fire in the crowded intersection.

Judge Richard Urbina did not address that debate. Instead, he ruled that prosecutors, "in their zeal to bring charges," violated the guards' constitutional rights and rendered further criminal action unfeasible.

The five guards -- and a sixth, Jeremy Ridgeway, who has pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi civilian -- provided testimony to investigators who promised the statements would not be used in a criminal case.

But Urbina ruled that prosecutors could not have made their case



without the benefit of the guards' admissions. In using coerced testimony to bring the charges, "the government's trial team repeatedly disregarded the warnings of experienced, senior prosecutors, assigned to the case specifically to advise the trial team," Urbina wrote in a 90-page opinion.

As such, Urbina ruled, "the process aimed at bringing the accused to trial has compromised the constitutional rights of the accused."

"We're obviously disappointed by the decision," Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told the Associated Press. "We're still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options."

Prosecutors could appeal the judge's decision, but Ball's defense attorney believes that it is unlikely that they would succeed.

"It's a very reasonable and thoughtful opinion," said Washington, D.C., attorney Steven McCool.

Ball -- whose dreams of becoming a police officer have been deferred by the charges -- was "ecstatic" over the news, McCool said.

"He's had this hanging on his shoulders for quite some time now," he said.

From the beginning of the case, a united defense team representing Ball, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten have maintained that the guards were under attack when they returned fire in the crowded intersection.

"We've always maintained that the charges were unfounded," McCool said.

But in court pleadings, the defense also attacked the way the evidence against the guards was collected and questioned whether the United States even had jurisdiction to bring charges.

The accused men had faced mandatory 30-year prison terms if convicted on the charges of manslaughter and weapons violations.

Ridgeway has not yet been sentenced.

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