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Washington Appeals Court Revives Blackwater Case

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Nearly four years ago, a deadly incident involving Blackwater security guards turned into one of the most sensitive episodes of the Iraq War. Fourteen Iraqi civilians died while they waited in Baghdad traffic near a crowded public square. Families of the dead demanded justice.

Eventually, U.S. prosecutors indicted the Blackwater contractors on manslaughter charges. But a federal judge threw the case out before it got to trial. Today, an appeals court in Washington revived the case.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the latest.

CARRIE JOHNSON: In September of 2007, a team of armed guards working for Blackwater approached a busy square in Baghdad, clearing the way for a U.S. diplomat. Shots rang out, the guards opened fire. Minutes later, 14 Iraqis were dead.

The Justice Department charged four guards with manslaughter in 2008. Federal judge Ricardo Urbina threw the case out the following year. The judge said evidence against the guards was tainted because prosecutors had built their case on statements the guards made, violating their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Iraqi leaders were furious. Their outcry launched a debate over whether U.S. contractors could be held accountable for crimes overseas. None other than Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Justice Department would appeal. And earlier today, the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the Obama administration -at least for now.

Scott Silliman teaches national security law at Duke University.

Professor SCOTT SILLIMAN (National Security Law, Duke University): This opinion released today by the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals basically says that judge did not do a thorough enough job.

JOHNSON: Silliman says the appeals court ruling directs Judge Urbina to roll up his sleeves.

Prof. SILLIMAN: The court says line by line, bit by bit, go through all the evidence that was brought before the grand jury, all the evidence which was used by the prosecution to frame its indictment and make a decision whether it was tainted or not.

JOHNSON: It won't be clear for some time whether that work will leave the Justice Department with enough of a case to go forward.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.