STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A former American security contractor who worked in Iraq will spend the rest of his life in prison. A federal judge handed down that sentence yesterday to 1 of 4 former employees of Blackwater for a deadly shooting in Baghdad in 2007. Three other former guards will serve 30 years behind bars. The bloodshed in traffic-clogged Nisour Square resulted in the deaths of 14 unarmed Iraqis. Seventeen others were wounded. The guards maintained their innocence. They say they came under fire and acted in self-defense. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was in the courtroom when the sentences were given.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Prosecutors called that shooting in Baghdad an atrocity - an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians that was unjustified and immoral. They urged the judge to impose what amounted to life sentences for all four Blackwater security contractors. Fitting punishment, the Justice Department says, for what another contractor called, quote, "the most horrible and botched thing I've ever seen in my life." Relatives of the Iraqi victims made a long journey to the courthouse just steps from the U.S. Capitol.
A 9-year-old boy named Ali was killed in the shooting. His father asked the court to teach the guards a lesson. His mother asked, why did they kill my son? Why did they do this to me? Ali's older brother said Blackwater came to Iraq as a security company, but it didn't secure anything.
The security guards had a voice inside the courtroom, too. Nearly 100 supporters wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Blackwater logo. Many of them wiped away tears as character witnesses attested to the men's good judgment. Two women in the audience sighed when Nicholas Slatten, accused of firing the first shots, was sentenced to life. Even the judge broke with emotion at one point. He said the defendants were good men who'd never before been in trouble. But Judge Royce Lamberth said the men panicked, firing into cars and at women who just got off a bus.
The judge said the wild thing that happened can never be condoned by a court. He commended the Justice Department and FBI for exposing what happened in Nisour Square nearly eight years ago. Defense lawyers say the guilty verdicts were a shock and a horrible disappointment. One said, this case haunts us; it haunts us all. They're vowing to appeal. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.