FEDERAL COURT DISMISSES FEDERAL CHARGES AGAINST BLACKWATER GUNMEN DUE TO PROSECUTORS VIOLATION OF IMMUNITY RULE REGARDING COMPELLED STATEMENTS- The “taint team” couldn’t save this prosecution – This marks the fourth recent example in which judges have tossed out cases citing Justice Department abuse.
The Wall Street Journal Jan. 4, 2009
Another example of prosecutorial misconduct in a political case?
No, not as the left would have it, that Blackwater still exists. The scandal is that the Justice Department’s case against five former security guards for the military contractor unraveled late last week in what appears to be another instance of gross prosecutorial misconduct, as abusive Justice lawyers went after an unsympathetic political target.
The indictments—which were thrown out by D.C. District Judge Ricardo Urbina in a derisive and detailed 90-page opinion—stemmed from a 2007 firefight in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left 14 Iraqis dead and others wounded. The government contends that five Blackwater guards, who were providing tactical support for the State Department after an IED exploded in the vicinity of a meeting with Iraqi officials, went on an unprovoked killing spree against unarmed civilians. The guards maintain that they came under attack by insurgents and were responding in self-defense to a mortal threat.
Judge Urbina dismissed the charges because prosecutors misused sworn statements the guards were compelled to make to investigators after the shooting, under the threat of job loss. This was routine practice under military contracting rules, though the statements could not be used in criminal prosecutions. Promptly after the Nisour incident these statements were also leaked to the media, which ran with the narrative of modern-day Hessians gone berserk.
“In their zeal to bring charges against the defendants in this case,” Judge Urbina ruled, prosecutors had violated Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination by using these compelled statements to formulate their case and ultimately obtain indictments against the guards. The judge calls it “the government’s reckless violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights.”
Because of prior contact with the compelled statements, the Justice Department’s entire criminal division had recused itself from the case, which was handed over to national-security prosecutors and later to Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Kenneth Kohl. The veteran Justice public-integrity lawyer Raymond Hulser was eventually assigned to lead a “taint team” to rebuild the case without using the off-limits statements, and he repeatedly warned the trial team that their evidence was “thoroughly tainted.”
“By all accounts these prophylactic measures fell well short of expectations,” Judge Urbina notes with some understatement. In “direct contravention of the clear directives” of Mr. Hulser, the statements were used to obtain a search warrant against Blackwater, figured into plea discussions, and exposed in testimony to the grand jury, forcing Justice to withdraw the case and present it to a new panel.
In the second round that featured redacted testimony from the first grand jury, prosecutors also excised what Judge Urbina calls “substantial exculpatory evidence.” The judge goes on to say that Justice’s “inconsistent, extraordinary explanations” for its conduct “smack of post hoc rationalization and are simply implausible,” and ultimately “lacking in credibility.”
Certainly the shootings at Nisour are a tragedy that strained U.S. relations with the Iraqi government, though the details seem reminiscent of the 2005 incident at Haditha, which the Washington political class played as another My Lai massacre but in reality was the product of the complex, asymmetrical combat conditions in a war zone. The courts martial against all but one of the Marines at Haditha have been dismissed or collapsed.
In this case, too, one question is whether prosecutors felt they could get away with such abusive behavior because Blackwater was such a politically unpopular defendant. The firm had political ties to Republicans, and Democrats and their media allies had made Blackwater a whipping boy to further undermine public support for the Iraq war. (Blackwater is now renamed Xe Services and no longer contracting in Iraq.)
This marks the fourth recent example in which judges have tossed out cases citing Justice Department abuse involving easy political targets. In the last year it has become clear that the ethics conviction against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was likely a miscarriage of justice, with prosecutors covering up evidence and trying to keep a witness from testifying.
There’s also the vendetta against two former executives at Broadcom in the forgotten political uproar over backdating stock options. That case was thrown out last month after a judge ruled that prosecutors had improperly pressured witnesses and leaked information to the press. Earlier this decade, a federal judge tossed out multiple tax evasion cases against former KPMG partners.
Something is rotten in the culture of Justice, leading ambitious government crusaders to think they can get away with flouting due process when the political winds are blowing hot. Congress and the press corps may be too politically implicated to police this prosecutorial malpractice, so it may be up to the judiciary to apply more stringent sanctions.