Jury selection began this week in the federal trial of a New Hampshire native and three other Blackwater security guards accused of a Baghdad shooting spree that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead in 2007.
Evan S. Liberty, who grew up in Rochester and graduated from Spaulding High School, faces decades in federal prison if convicted of some or all of the 31 charges he faces. They include multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, and a single count of discharging a firearm during a violent crime.
One of his codefendants — Nicholas Slatten — was allegedly the first of the Blackwater guards to open fire at the traffic square on Sept. 16, 2007, and faces a charge of first-degree murder, according to court documents.
Slatten’s lawyer told a news service that the trial is expected to last five to six months, according to a report by Al-Jazeera America.
A man answering the phone Thursday at a Rochester number listed to Liberty said he cannot comment at this time but will make a statement later.
Jury selection started Wednesday at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Six lawyers were in court to represent the four codefendants. The U.S. attorney had five prosecutors in court.
Much of the case is laid out in federal court filings that are available online.
A former U.S. Marine, Liberty was working for Blackwater in 2007, assigned to a convoy of four heavily armored vehicles that went by the call sign Raven 23. On the day in question, the convoy was ordered to a checkpoint between the Red Zone and Green Zone, after a car bomb detonated in central Baghdad, near a U.S. official.
According to court papers filed by the prosecution, Raven 23 disregarded an order from Blackwater and drove to Nisur Square, which is adjacent to the Green Zone, and established a blockade.
“While occupying Nisur Square, seven of the 19 members of Raven 23, including the four defendants ..., fired their weapons at targets primarily to the south, but also to the west and east, of the circle, resulting in the deaths or injury of multiple unarmed Iraqi civilians there,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.
The prosecution plans to present evidence about the defendants’ “low regard for and hostility toward Iraqi civilians.” In court documents, prosecutors said Liberty fired indiscriminately from his vehicle, berated a coworker as a “Hadji Lover” and routinely threw water bottles and other items at civilians, vehicles and bicycles.
The defense is expected to argue that the four were acting in self-defense and lacked the criminal intent to murder or kill anyone, according to court records. The defense team has said Raven 23 departed the Green Zone to secure a safe return route for the official and came under attack at Nisur Square.
In 2010, a trial judge threw out the case over complaints that the prosecution built its case based on statements given under grants of immunity. But two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the judge depended on an “erroneous view of the law” and ordered the case returned to trial.
The court docket lists nine lawyers for Liberty, which include lawyers from two legal-advocacy groups — the Thomas More Law Center and the American Freedom Law Center. Neither organization lists the case on its website, and neither provided comment on Thursday.
The trial judge is Royce Lamberth. An appointee of Ronald Reagan, Lamberth is the former chief judge of the District of Columbia trial court.
In a profile, the Washington Post called him a “shoot-from-the-hip Texan” who plays cards with Chief Justice John Roberts and is a longtime friend with the federal public defender.
Lamberth oversaw the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and has ruled on the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the funding of human embryonic stem cell research, the newspaper said.