A federal judge said jurors “got it right” when they found former contractor Nicholas Slatten guilty of murder in December 2018. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.
The matter first went to trial in December 2008, when the U.S. Attorneys’ Office initiated action against Slatten and four other Iraq War contractors. Just before the trial began in 2010, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina threw the charges out of court, ruling that prosecutors had obtained statements illegally. In 2011, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit revived the prosecution, citing “systemic” mistakes in Judge Urbina’s 2009 ruling.
In 2014, trial began against Slatten and three others. Prosecutors added a controversial law to the indictment which probably enabled them to get convictions against the three non-Slatten guards. However, an appeals court threw out this result, as well, because the defendants should have been tried separately. In 2017, Slatten was tried a third time, but the jury could not reach a decision.
During the sentencing hearing, Slatten’s father said he would “fight until hell freezes over to correct this travesty of justice.” In passing sentence, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth discarded defense contentions that Slatten was a scapegoat.
What Happened at Nisour Square?
In September 2007, Blackwater guards who were escorting a convoy through Baghdad opened fire in a crowded square, killing 17 people and injuring 20 others. The result is not disputed, but the facts leading up to that result remain unclear.
Slatten and the other guards said that a Kia sedan ignored traffic signals and other warnings, such as hand signals, warning shots, and even lethal shots, and continued toward an American military convoy.
Some of the Blackwater guards assumed the Kia was carrying a car bomb. Then, when they finally disabled the Kia, an Iraqi policeman approached the car. The guards said they though the policeman was pushing the car toward the convoy; other accounts said the policeman was trying to help the injured driver. At any rate, the contractors opened fire again, and nearby Iraqi soldiers and policemen opened fire as well.
Based largely on the Army’s report, which indicated that Blackwater was at fault, the Iraqi government demanded action. Additionally, Iraq tried to revoke Blackwater’s operational license, but Bagdhdad and Washinton soon reached a compromise which allowed the private military contractor to remain in country.
A month later, the FBI released a report which stated that the Blackwater guards acted with excessive force. 14 of the 17 deaths, according to the FBI, were unjustified. Since the FBI is a division of the Department of Justice, federal prosecutors put a great deal of stock in this report. A lengthy court battle ensued, as set forth above.
Wartime Contractor Duties in Iraq
In America, Nisour Square became for military contractors what Watergate meant for political corruption in the 1970s. “Watergate” usually refers to all the corrupt practices of the Nixon administration, and not just the break-in itself. Similarly, many people did not consider Nisour Square to be an isolated incident. Instead, it was simply the latest and more serious repercussion of the flawed U.S. reliance on private military contractors. For example, during the immediate aftermath, many pundits pointed out that Blackwater guards fired in 195 separate incidents during the first two weeks of September, 2005. What that has to do with a shooting two years later is not clear.
During the Iraq War, private military contractors had several roles. Some protected convoys, manned checkpoints, and served in other combat roles. Others trained Iraqi soldiers or maintained military equipment. Still others served as translators or in other support roles.
These duties are similar to U.S. servicemembers’. In fact, one person noted that if a VIP boarded a helicopter, it was difficult to tell which soldiers were servicemembers and which were military contractors. Injured servicemembers have access to VA medical treatment, and injured contractors have access to Defense Base Act benefits.
Postwar Contractor Duties in Iraq
Bitter experience in places and times like Europe in the 1920s, Vietnam in the 1970s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s has taught us that “winning the peace” is at least as important as winning the war. So, when combat operations end in places like Iraq, contractors continue to play critical roles.
Fighting ISIS, Al Qeda, the Taliban, and other groups is only part of the task. Unless the U.S. takes an active role in putting these war-torn countries back together, that struggle could be for nothing.
Unarmed contractors build bridges, roads, and other infrastructure. They also build hospitals, schools, and other public buildings. Unless the area is at least somewhat normal, most refugees will not return. Additionally, armed contractors guard these construction projects, to make sure that remaining militants do not disrupt them.
Injury Compensation Available
Combat and non-combat environments alike are dangerous for contractors. There is no “rear area” in the War on Terror. Every soldier in every place is a potential target. Similarly, many foreign construction sites are quite dangerous. There is no OSHA or other government watchdog. So, contractors are often seriously injured, and injury recovery may take many months.
This extended time off work puts many families in a serious financial bind. Typically, the injured contractor was the family’s sole or primary source of income. In other words, the victim is not the only injured party. The victim’s family suffers as well.
So, the Defense Base Act pays lost wages in addition to medical benefits. The amount of compensation usually depends on the type of illness or injury, as follows:
- Permanent Disability: “Disabled” is both a medical and legal term. The doctor never comes into the exam room and says “You have a disability.” The term is a relative one, and so is the compensation. Generally, the DBA pays a sum of money which depends on the nature and extent of the injury.
- Temporary Partial Disability: TPD victims are able to work on a limited basis as they recover from their injuries, but they must accept a light-duty stateside assignment or perhaps another job altogether. In these cases, the DBA usually pays two-thirds of the difference between the old and new incomes.
- Temporary Total Disability: At least at first, almost all contractor injuries or illnesses are TTD situations. The contractor is unable to work at all. So, the DBA usually pays two-thirds of the contractor’s average weekly wage in this situation.
The average weekly wage includes regular cash compensation as well as irregular cash compensation, such as performance bonuses or pro-rated signing bonuses, and non-cash compensation, such as housing allowance or tuition reimbursement.
Reach out to Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A. to find out more about DBA procedure.