WASHINGTON – The legal drama surrounding five Blackwater Worldwide security contractors charged with killing Iraqi civilians was unfolding Monday on two stages thousands of miles apart.
In Washington, the Justice Department planned to make public the manslaughter indictment it obtained last week. And in Utah, the five guards were to surrender and question the legitimacy of the government's case.
They will be the first public events in an FBI investigation that has been carried out in secrecy since the September 2007 shooting, which left 17 Iraqis dead and strained U.S. relations with Iraq.
The five guards face charges including manslaughter and using a machine gun in a crime of violence. The latter falls under a law that passed during the height of the crack epidemic. It carries a mandatory 30-year prison term.
A sixth guard struck a plea deal in Washington to avoid that lengthy sentence, people close to the case have said. Details of the deal remain sealed in Washington but could be made public Monday.
Though the case has already been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington, defense attorneys plan to argue that there's no reason for the case to be tried here. None of the guards live in the Washington area and the shooting occurred overseas.
Utah is a much more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington. It's a long-shot legal strategy, but it underscores just how contentious the court fight will be, long before the case ever gets to trial.
Steven McCool, a lawyer for Blackwater guard and former Marine Donald Ball, confirmed Sunday that his client would surrender in Utah. Ball is from West Valley, Utah.
"Donald Ball committed no crime," McCool said. "We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government."
The other guards indicted are Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater is the largest security contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards to protect U.S. diplomats. Since last year's shooting, the company has been a flash point in the debate over how heavily the U.S. relies on contractors in war zones.
The shooting erupted when a Blackwater convoy, responding to a car bombing, entered Baghdad's crowded Nisoor Square. Blackwater says its guards were ambushed in the square, touching off a firefight, but witnesses said the shooting was unprovoked.
Young children were among the victims, and enraged Iraqis have been calling for charges against the Blackwater guards ever since. Blackwater also became the theme of violent, anti-American insurgent propaganda.