One by one, four former Blackwater security contractors wearing blue jumpsuits and leg irons stood before a federal judge on Monday and spoke publicly for the first time since a deadly 2007 shooting in Iraq.
The men had been among several private American security guards who fired into Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007, and last October they were convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in what prosecutors called a wartime atrocity. Yet on Monday, as they awaited sentences that they knew would send them to prison for most if not all of their lives, they defiantly asserted their innocence.
“I know for a fact that I will be exonerated, in this life and the next,” said Paul A. Slough.
“I am very sorry for the loss of life,” Dustin L. Heard said. “But I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I believe I did anything wrong.”
“As God is my witness,” Evan S. Liberty said, he fired only at insurgents who were shooting at him.
“The verdict is wrong,” said Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Army sniper who was convicted of murder for starting the melee with a precision shot through the head of a young man stopped at an intersection. “You know I am innocent, sir.”
The judge, Royce C. Lamberth, strongly disagreed, sentencing Mr. Slatten to life in prison and handing 30-year sentences to the three others. A fifth former guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway of California, had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and testified against his former colleagues. He has not been sentenced but testified that he hoped to avoid any prison time.
The ruling ended a long investigation into the Nisour Square shooting, a signature, gruesome moment in the Iraq war that highlighted America’s reliance on private contractors to maintain security in combat zones.
No such company was more powerful than Blackwater, which won more than $1 billion in government contracts. Its employees, most of them military veterans, protected American diplomats overseas and became enmeshed in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine counterterrorism operations. Its founder, Erik Prince, was a major donor to the Republican Party.
In Iraq, Blackwater was perceived as so powerful that its employees could kill anyone and get away with it, said Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was killed in Nisour Square.
“Blackwater had power like Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Kinani said in a long, emotional appeal to the judge on Monday. “The power comes from the United States.” He added later: “Today we see who will win. The law? Or Blackwater?”
Nearly 100 supporters crowded the large courtroom, many of them wearing Blackwater shirts. Friends, relatives and former military friends spoke on behalf of the four men, describing them, through tears, as patriotic, small-town men who deeply loved their families and their country.
Judge Lamberth, a former captain in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, was also moved. He choked up as he described the defendants as “good young men who’ve never been in trouble, who served their country.” But he said the wild, unprovoked shooting “just cannot ever be condoned by a court.”
The sentences were a long-fought diplomatic victory for the United States, which asked a skeptical Iraqi government and its people to be patient and trust the American criminal justice system. That faith was tested many times over the past eight years as the case suffered several setbacks, many of which were of the government’s own making.
Despite those missteps, Judge Lamberth praised the Justice Department and the F.B.I. for uncovering and presenting to the world “the truth about what happened at Nisour Square.”
At trial, witnesses said that the shooting began almost immediately after a convoy of armored Blackwater trucks rolled into the traffic circle. The contractors said they were shot at by Iraqi insurgents, and returned fire. But dozens of Iraqis and several of their former Blackwater colleagues testified that the shooting was unprovoked.
“There was a lady. She was screaming and weeping about her son and asking for help,” Sarhan Deab Abdul Moniem, an Iraqi traffic officer, testified. He showed jurors how she had cradled her dead son’s head on her shoulder. “I asked her to open up the door so I could help her. But she was paying attention only to her son.”
Other witnesses described a mother who pushed her daughter to safety, only to be killed herself. One man was pounded with bullets while he lay dying, unarmed, in the street. Another was shot while he had his hands up.
“I saw people huddled down in their cars, trying to shield their children with their bodies,” Adam Frost, a former Blackwater contractor, said in key testimony against his one-time colleagues.
“What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity,” T. Patrick Martin, a federal prosecutor, said.
The Nisour Square shooting transformed Blackwater from America’s most prominent security contractor into a symbol of unchecked and privatized military power. The incident also became a notorious low point in the war, along with the massacre by Marines of 24 civilians at Haditha and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
“The United States has shown that regardless of the nationality of the victims, it values justice for all,” Mr. Martin said. “Even when that means that the American who committed the crime must serve time.”
Lawyers for the guards apologized to Mr. Kinani and his family, saying that their son and the other victims were the sad consequences of urban warfare. “What happened here was a tragedy and to the extent I can apologize for anything, I do,” said Thomas G. Connolly, a lawyer for Mr. Slatten. “Nobody intended to kill your son.”
While the prosecution ends with the sentences, the legal case is sure to continue for years. The case raised many new legal issues, including whether State Department contractors are covered by American criminal law when operating overseas.
The 30-year sentences, while significant, could have been much longer. For using machine guns to commit violent crimes, they faced mandatory minimum 30-year sentences under a law passed during the crack cocaine epidemic. Prosecutors had wanted the judge to hand down sentences of 50 years or more.