On December 31, 2009 DC District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the indictment against five Blackwater defendants involved in what is commonly referred to as the Nisour Square shootings occurring on September 16, 2007. Urbina’s decision was 90 pages in length and was further supported by a three week long Kastigar hearing in his court October of 2009. A Kastigar hearing is an evidentiary inquiry based upon Kastigar v. United States, 92 S. Ct. 1653 (1972), “where a party has been compelled to relinquish his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in reliance on the government‘s promises of immunity, the government bears the―affirmative duty to prove that the evidence it proposes to use is derived from a legitimate source wholly independent of the compelled testimony.”
Today, in a surprising unanimous decision, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Urbina, reinstated the case against four of the five original defendants (the prosecution had voluntarily dismissed Defendant Slatten previously) and remanded the case back to District Court for further proceedings. Here is how Reuters described the ruling:
The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation count over a Baghdad shooting that outraged Iraqis and strained ties between the two countries.
The shooting occurred as the private security firm’s guards escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through the Iraqi capital on September 16, 2007. The guards, U.S. military veterans, were responding to a car bombing when gunfire erupted at a crowded intersection.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in December 2009 that prosecutors violated the defendants’ constitutional rights and the case was tainted by use of statement the guards made to State Department investigators under a threat of job loss.
The appeals court reversed that ruling that the indictment of the guards had been improperly obtained through the use of their compelled statements. It ruled Urbina wrongly interpreted the law.
The appeals court sent the case back to Urbina to determine what evidence, if any, the government presented had been tainted and whether it was harmless.
The public version of the decision is here however, there is also a sealed classified version containing additional material.
The first thing to consider here is the standard of review the Circuit Court used in analyzing the appeal, because there were intermixing of factual and legal findings inherent in the Kastigar process, the court reviewed for clear error:
We review the district court’s findings that the government used a defendant’s immunized statement for clear error, United States v. North, 910 F.2d 843, 855 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (“North I”), a standard that is met for any finding that was “induced by an erroneous view of the law,”
In a nutshell, what that means is that the appellate court had to give strong deference to the findings by the trial court. In spite of this deference still unanimously blew Judge Urbina’s findings straight out Read more