Blackwater guards to surrender

WASHINGTON -- Five Blackwater Worldwide security guards indicted in Washington for the 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians plan to surrender to the FBI Monday in Utah, a person close to the case said, setting up a fight over the trial site.

The case already is shaping up to be a series of contentious legal battles before the guards can even go to trial. By surrendering in Utah, the home state of one of the guards, the men could argue the case should be heard in a far more conservative, pro-gun venue than Washington, some 2,000 miles away.

The person described the decision to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the indictment against the men remains sealed.

The five guards, all military veterans, were indicted for their roles in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

The shooting strained U.S. diplomacy and fueled anti-American sentiment abroad. The Iraqi government has urged the U.S. to prosecute the guards and cheered news of the indictments.

Steven McCool, a lawyer for Blackwater guard and former Marine Donald Ball, confirmed Sunday that his client would surrender in Utah. Ball, a veteran of three tours in Iraq before joining Blackwater, is from West Valley, Utah.

"Donald Ball committed no crime," McCool said. "We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government."

The other guards indicted are Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.

It's not uncommon for lawyers to try to get their cases in front of favorable juries, but often it is difficult in criminal cases. GOP Sen. Ted Stevens unsuccessfully tried to move his recent corruption trial to his home state Alaska from the District of Columbia.

If the lawyers try to keep the case in Utah, a federal judge will decide where it should go to trial.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that crimes committed overseas are normally charged in Washington. They also have been negotiating a plea deal with a sixth guard. Documents related to those negotiations already are filed in Washington federal court.

The Justice Department has not commented on the case.

The exact charges against the five guards have not been announced. But the department had been reviewing manslaughter and assault charges against the guards for weeks. Prosecutors also are planning to use an aggressive law calling for mandatory 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes.

"It would be outrageous to charge Mr. Ball with firearms offenses relating to guns issued by the State Department," McCool said.

The Blackwater guards, hired by the U.S. to guard State Department diplomats in Iraq, carry automatic weapons and drive heavily armored vehicles equipped with turret guns.

The shooting at the heart of the case involved a convoy of those vehicles responding to a car bombing in downtown Baghdad. Entering a busy traffic circle, the convoy opened fire. Witnesses said Blackwater was unprovoked. The company says its guards were ambushed.

By the time the shooting stopped, 17 Iraqis, including children, were dead and Nisoor Square was a mess of blown-out cars.

Prosecutors have questioned dozens of witnesses, including many who served in the Blackwater convoy with the five men. An Iraqi man whose son was killed in the shooting traveled to Washington to testify before a grand jury.

Before the case ever gets to trial, however, defense attorneys are expected to bring several legal challenges.

The Justice Department does not normally have authority to prosecute crimes committed by U.S. citizens overseas. But contractors are immune from prosecution in Iraq. To bring the case, U.S. prosecutors must persuade a judge that Blackwater falls under a law covering soldiers and military contractors - even though Blackwater works for the State Department.

Prosecutors must also show that they did not rely on any statements made by Blackwater guards interviewed by State Department officials after the shooting. Those statements were made under a limited immunity agreement.

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