WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday rejected a last-minute request to delay the sentencing hearing for four former Blackwater guards convicted in the 2007 fatal shooting of Iraqi civilians.
The order from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth means the sentencing will proceed as scheduled Monday morning in Washington. Federal prosecutors are seeking mandatory decades-long sentences for three of the four — Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Paul Slough — and a life sentence for guard Nicholas Slatten, who was convicted of first-degree murder.
Defense lawyers filed an emergency motion Friday morning seeking a delay in the sentencing hearing because of newly discovered evidence that they said was favorable to their case. They contended that a new witness statement produced by prosecutors this week contradicted the government's case about how the shooting started and called into doubt the trial's results.
"Defendants, who have been confined since the verdict, do not lightly seek delay, or seek delay for its own sake. But these issues deserve full consideration by the Court: it would be unfair to proceed to impose sentence and enter judgment when this new evidence, disclosed less than two days ago, leaves the trial result fundamentally in doubt," defense lawyers wrote.
Prosecutors responded by saying there was no need to postpone the trial. In a two-page order issued Friday evening, Lamberth said he agreed and noted that the defendants still had the option of seeking a new trial.
The statement in question, from an Iraqi traffic policeman who was a key witness at trial, was turned over as part of a package of victim impact statements assembled ahead of the sentencing hearing.
The policeman's testimony was intended to support the government's theory that the shooting in crowded Nisoor Square in downtown Baghdad was an unprovoked ambush by the guards that began when Slatten fired upon a white Kia sedan. The witness, Sarhan Dheyab Abdul Monem, provided the jury with an important account of how the shooting unfolded, recounting how he had seen rifle barrels sticking out from the trucks in the guards' convoy and how he heard the first shots from the trucks and that he heard screaming coming from the white Kia.
He testified that he had a firsthand look at the mortally wounded driver of the Kia — a shooting that prosecutors said was the first burst of violence in the attack — and tried to come to the aid of a female passenger.
In his victim impact statement, however, Monem said he remained in his police booth during the shooting, "unable to move or to act," defense lawyers wrote in their motion. And he suggested that the driver was still alive during the incident and trying to get out of the car, rather than killed by ambush.
"I feel guilty for not being able to help the doctor and his poor mother in the incident, I could not do anything," the lawyers quote Monem as saying in his statement.
In their response, prosecutors said they spoke to the witness on Friday and that his statement was "consistent with the accounts that he has given 11 times previously." They said Monem had submitted his statement in Arabic, which was then translated into English, and had intended to "express his feelings and emotions about the shooting, to include imagining himself in the place of certain victims while they were being shot and killed."
The four ex-guards, who were in Iraq to provide diplomatic security services, were charged in the deaths of 14 Iraqis and the injuries of more than a dozen others and were convicted in October after a years-long legal fight.
The firearms convictions alone carry 30-year mandatory minimum sentences, though defense lawyers say such a penalty would be unconstitutionally harsh. The first-degree murder conviction for Slatten carries a life sentence.