Prosecutors who mishandled the investigation into a deadly 2007 Blackwater Worldwide shooting face a possible misconduct citation from a judge who says they withheld evidence and violated the guards' constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina admonished the Justice Department last week for its "reckless" handling of the investigation into a shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead. He threw out manslaughter and weapons charges against five security guards and, in a footnote, said he was also considering whether the repeated government missteps amounted to misconduct.
Such a ruling would be an embarrassing cap to a politically sensitive investigation and a black eye to a department that is still dealing with the fallout from last year's botched corruption case against former Sen. Ted Stevens. In that case, a judge wiped away the senator's conviction and appointed a lawyer to investigate prosecutors for withholding evidence from defense attorneys.
If Urbina rules the Blackwater prosecutors committed misconduct, it would touch off an internal Justice Department investigation and could lead to sanctions against the government or the individual prosecutors.
Blackwater guards were hired to protect diplomats in Iraq. The shooting unfolded in a crowded intersection, where Blackwater said its guards were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. Prosecutors said the heavily armored Blackwater convoy used machine guns and grenades to unleash a wild, unprovoked assault on innocent civilians.
The Blackwater case fell apart because prosecutors built the investigation around State Department interviews the guards gave immediately after the shooting. Under an agreement commonly made following police shootings, the interviews were to be used only for the State Department investigation, not for criminal prosecution.
Urbina also cited prosecutors for withholding evidence from the grand jury. For instance, after a key witness told prosecutors he never saw Blackwater guard Donald Ball open fire, prosecutors blacked out that statement before presenting it to the grand jury. Grand jurors have the final say on whether to charge people.
Prosecutors also withheld the fact that four other Blackwater guards said they were attacked within seconds of entering the intersection. A prosecutor told the judge he withheld that evidence because he believed the witnesses were hostile to the government, according to the court ruling.
Ball's attorney, Steven McCool, asked for the misconduct ruling but would not comment Monday because the request remains sealed. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd had no comment.
The five guards are Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.