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Claims of government misconduct in Blackwater case

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November 27, 2009

Defense lawyers are alleging misconduct by Justice Department prosecutors in the case against one of five Blackwater security guards accused in the killings of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad.

Recent pretrial proceedings that took place behind closed doors led the Justice Department to seek dismissal of charges against Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., one of the five guards accused in the shootings in busy Nisoor Square in September 2007.

In a one-paragraph filing a week ago, the department disclosed that it wants to preserve the possibility of filing a new set of charges against Slatten.

On Wednesday, Slatten’s lawyers said in court papers they want to stop the Justice Department from doing so and that the issue should be aired in a public court hearing.

The recent secret hearings focused on whether statements some of the guards gave to the State Department after the killings in Baghdad under a grant of immunity tainted the government’s subsequent criminal case. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina has yet to rule.

In its court filing Wednesday, Slatten’s defense team called the U.S. government’s handling of the charges against Slatten “a disturbing case of prosecutorial misconduct, undermining the integrity of the judicial process.”

The case against Slatten became untenable, not merely because of a fundamental lack of evidence against him, but also because the trial team repeatedly mischaracterized the testimony of witnesses and excluded evidence that ran in Slatten’s favor from the grand jury that indicted him, Slatten’s lawyers wrote in asking for a public hearing before the judge.

“The collapse of the government’s case against Mr. Slatten should be as public as the baseless allegations against him,” Slatten’s lawyers added. “He should not be required to endure the government’s repeated public mischaracterization of the evidence while non-public proceedings tell a very different story.”

In a court filing late Wednesday, the Justice Department declined to comment on the substance of the defense allegations. The department said only that the allegations involve what transpired at the recent closed court hearings. The prosecutors said Slatten’s lawyers had acted inappropriately by putting their court papers on the public record and the Justice Department asked Urbina to disregard Slatten’s motion for a hearing.

Slatten was an Army sniper who served two tours in Iraq before joining Blackwater. Since the shooting, Blackwater, headquartered in Moyock, N.C., has renamed itself Xe Corp. and has undergone management changes.

The case against the guards is set for trial in February. Prosecutors were aggressive in their charges, using an anti-machine gun law to attach 30-year mandatory prison sentences to the case. And though authorities can’t say for sure exactly which guards shot which victims, all five guards are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter.