WASHINGTON -- Four former Blackwater security contractors found guilty in a deadly Baghdad shooting appealed their convictions on Monday, saying a key witness against them had changed his testimony after the trial and that prosecutors lacked jurisdiction to even bring the case.
The appeals, long expected, represent the latest legal volley in a criminal case that's spanned years in Washington's federal court and that concluded with guilty verdicts following a months-long trial in 2014.
Nicholas Slatten is serving a life sentence on a charge of first-degree murder. Three other former guards -- Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Herd -- were found guilty of manslaughter and firearms charges carrying mandatory 30-year sentences.
The case arose from the September 2007 shooting in Nisoor Square that prosecutors say left 14 civilians dead at the crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad. The shooting strained international relations and drew scrutiny to the role of American contractors in war-torn Iraq.
The two sides presented the jury with radically different accounts of the events: Prosecutors described the killings as a one-sided ambush of unarmed civilians, while defense lawyers said the guards opened fire only after a white Kia sedan seen as a potential car bomb threat began moving quickly toward their convoy.
Central to the appeal is a witness who defense lawyers say changed his account of what happened in a way that undermines the government's narrative.
The witness, an Iraqi traffic officer, told jurors that the driver of the Kia was killed by the first shots that were fired in an unprovoked burst of violence that set off the rest of the rampage. He testified that after seeing the mortally wounded driver, he ran in front of the convoy with his hands up and told the guards to stop shooting.
But right before the sentencing hearing last April, the same witness submitted a victim impact statement saying that the driver was still alive when the shooting started and that, instead of standing before the convoy as he had earlier maintained, he actually remained in his traffic kiosk out of fear.
The judge refused to grant the men a new trial, but the defense team said the new account dismantled the prosecution's theory.
"This evidence eviscerated the government's case and would have led to acquittals," defense lawyers wrote. "The district court abused its discretion by denying a new trial."
Prosecutors will have a chance to respond to the filings before a federal appeals court hears arguments. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment Monday.