A new team of lawyers today took over the controversial manslaughter prosecution against a group of Blackwater security guards charged in the killing of Iraqi civilians.
The new prosecution team, which now includes assistant U.S. attorneys Anthony Asuncion, John Han and T. Patrick Martin, comes as U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina prepares to receive an update on the status of the case.
Delivering a blow to the Justice Department, Urbina in December 2009 dismissed charges against the guards, citing prosecution missteps. The guards were indicted in December 2008 in Washington federal district court.
Urbina dismissed the case after several weeks of a “Kastigar” hearing. At issue in the proceeding, which was held behind closed doors, was the extent to which the government built the manslaughter case on statements the guards made in the aftermath of the shooting in Baghdad in 2007. The defense lawyers for the guards argued the statements were protected.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in April reversed Urbina, sending the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The full appeals court refused to rehear the case, despite pleas from the defense lawyers that the panel ruling was wrongly decided.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said in a statement this afternoon that the new legal team was installed “out of an abundance of caution to place this prosecution on the strongest possible footing with respect to any future Kastigar litigation.”
Demetra Lambros, a U.S. Justice Department appellate lawyer, acknowledged in the D.C. Circuit that the government made mistakes in putting together the criminal prosecution against the guards.
Justice Department “taint” procedures--to keep confidential information away from the trial prosecutors--did not work as intended. Prosecutors, Lambros said, believed they were entitled to review the statements the guards made to State Department investigators in the hours before FBI and DOJ officials “could make a considered decision about any grant of immunity.”
The manslaughter case, Lambros said, is “about a group of private security guards who recklessly and unjustifiably” opened fire, killing more than a dozen civilians. “It is also a case about the difficulty of bringing them to justice,” Lambros said.
Asuncion, Han and Martin replace Kenneth Kohl, Jonathan Malis, Stephen Ponticiello and Barry Jonas.
“They worked tirelessly and under extremely difficult circumstances, including repeated trips to Iraq, to prepare the case for trial,” Machen said in the statement. “We thank them for their service and are proud of their efforts in this matter.”
The three new lawyers on the Blackwater case each work in the National Security Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
For Martin, the case brings him back in the spotlight. Last year, Martin was a lead attorney on the obstruction and conspiracy prosecution in D.C. Superior Court against the three men charged with covering up the murder of Washington lawyer Robert Wone. The defendants were acquitted at a bench trial.
In the Blackwater case, Urbina said he wants the lawyers to provide him a status of the prosecution by Sept. 30.
Updated Sept. 29.