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By Timothy M. Phelps and Matt Hansen, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A federal jury Wednesday convicted four former Blackwater security guards who had been charged with killing 14 Iraqis in Baghdad seven years ago in a shooting that became a symbol of U.S. treatment of Iraqi civilians.

After nearly 30 days of deliberation, the jury in found Nicholas Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard — were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors flew dozens of Iraqi witnesses to Washington to testify about scenes of graphic violence, including the father of a 9-year-old boy who said he watched his son’s brains fall out at his feet.

Prosecutors said the shootings, in which 37 people were killed or injured, were unprovoked, the result of trigger-happy civilian security guards nervous about intelligence reports that a white Kia carrying a car bomb was circulating in the city looking for a target.

The defense, which put on only four witnesses, said the killings were a tragic mistake that started when unknown Iraqis opened fire on a Blackwater convoy.

The verdict comes at a delicate time for the Obama administration, just as the U.S. is helping the new Iraqi government fight Islamic State militants. It was the insistence by the previous Iraqi government that Americans accused of crimes within the country be tried in Iraqi courts that led Obama to pull U.S. troops out in 2011.

“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, whose office led the prosecution, said in a statement.

Jurors reached guilty verdicts on nearly all of the combined 33 counts. Judge Royce C. Lamberth declared a mistrial on three remaining charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter for Heard.

Slatten could face life imprisonment, while the remaining three defendants face 30-year mandatory minimum sentences, according to prosecutors.

The four men remained impassive and motionless as the verdicts were read. Lamberth asked them to remain seated during the lengthy recitation.

Defense attorneys vowed to appeal the verdicts, saying they believed the government had erred in trying the men under the auspices of the Department of Defense, because they were not contractors with that department while working in Iraq. As Blackwater contractors, they provided security to State Department officials in the country.

“This was a long and complicated trial that raised a lot of issues with the jury that will be raised in a motion for a new trial,” David Schertler, the attorney who represented Heard, said.

The men will remain in custody despite defense attorneys’ objections that they posed no flight risk. In some cases, the defendants had even returned from trips overseas to attend the trial, attorneys noted.

Some lawmakers praised the verdict, saying it demonstrated that the federal government needed to do a better job of holding its contractors accountable.

“It should not have taken this long for justice to be served,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement.

Leahy has proposed legislation that would allow U.S. contractors to be more easily prosecuted for crimes they commit overseas.

AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye

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