WASHINGTON -- Rejecting pleas for mercy, a federal judge sentenced former Blackwater security guard Nicholas Slatten yesterday to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others.
The carnage in Nisoor Square, a crowded Baghdad traffic circle, caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone and remains one of the low points of the Iraq War.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced Slatten, who witnesses said was the first to fire shots in the melee, to life on a charge of first-degree murder.
Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were each sentenced to 30 years and a day in prison for charges that included manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using firearms while committing a felony.
Lawyers for the men said they planned to appeal.
In their first public statements since the shooting, the former contractors, appearing in leg shackles and prison garb, insisted they are innocent.
"I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I did anything wrong," Heard told the judge.
"I feel utterly betrayed by the same government I served honorably," Slough said.
But Lamberth said he fully agreed with the jury's guilty verdicts last October and praised the Justice Department and the FBI for investigating the shooting and putting the truth "out there for the world to see."
"The overall wild thing that went on here just cannot ever be condoned by the court," Lamberth said.
The judge announced the sentences after a daylong hearing at which defense lawyers had argued for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients. Prosecutors asked that those sentences -- the minimums mandatory under the law -- be made even harsher. Lamberth rejected both requests.
Nearly 100 friends and relatives packed the courtroom to show support for the men, with many weeping throughout the proceedings. Several came to the lectern, some holding back tears, to speak glowingly of the men they knew as role models and patriots who only wanted to help serve their country.
Lamberth appeared moved by the outpouring of support, saying it was clear to him that "these fine young men just panicked."
Prosecutors described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said the men haven't shown remorse or taken responsibility. Defense lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defense.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Martin urged the court to consider the gravity of the crime and the sheer number of dead and wounded.
"These four men have refused to accept virtually any responsibility for their crimes and the blood they shed that day," Martin said.