WASHINGTON - A defense attorney told a federal jury on Wednesday that Iraqi national police removed evidence that would prove Blackwater security guards were being fired on by insurgents, prompting the guards to return fire in shootings that killed or wounded over 30 Iraqi civilians.
The assertion came in closing arguments at the guards' trial that began in June. Prosecutor Anthony Asuncion told the federal jury that the Blackwater guards unleashed a hail of gunfire that left "bloody, bullet-riddled corpses" at Nisoor Square in downtown Baghdad seven years ago.
Lawyers for the defendants said the guards acted in self-defense in firing their weapons, that there is ample evidence they were fired upon by insurgents, but that additional evidence supporting their case had disappeared.
"We will never know the extent to which Iraqi national police scrubbed the scene" of evidence that Blackwater guards were fired on, said Brian Heberlig, who is representing former Blackwater guard Paul Slough.
Declaring that there was no incoming gunfire, Asuncion said the four defendants "took something that didn't belong to them" - the lives of human beings and the health of others who are still suffering from their wounds from the Sept. 16, 2007 shootings.
The jurors' job "is a search for truth" in the wake of violently shattered lives, Asuncion said.
The U.S. government brought charges against the defendants in 14 of the deaths and 18 of the non-fatal shootings.
One defendant, Nicholas Slatten, faces a first-degree murder charge. Defendants Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty are charged with voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun charges.
Slatten could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted. The others face mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years in prison if convicted of the gun charge and one other count.
In his closing argument, Asuncion disputed the self-defense assertions.
One of the witnesses in the trial, Blackwater team leader Jimmy Watson, testified that on that day in Nisoor Square, he heard the incoming "pop" of what sounded like AK-47 rounds shortly before Slatten fired his weapon twice at the start of the violence.
Watson's testimony supports the idea that there was incoming gunfire because AK-47s were the type of weapons used by insurgents.
Asuncion discounted Watson's testimony, with the prosecutor saying that Watson had never said anything previously about incoming gunfire under questioning by investigators.
It's different when your former associates "are looking you in the eye" in an open courtroom, Asuncion said in suggesting that Watson had made up the story to help his former Blackwater colleagues.
During the trial, the defense team has made much of photos of eight AK-47 shell casings that were taken near Nisoor Square the same day as the shootings, suggesting they were evidence of insurgents firing on the Blackwater convoy.
"Shell casings on the streets of Baghdad are about as common as seashells at the beach," Asuncion told the jury. "They are scattered all over the place. The defense desperately wants you to believe" the shell casings are significant.