Blackwater trial tests the effectiveness of U.S. courts

Marshall Thompson

A federal judge held last week that a civil suit against military contractors who allegedly shot 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007 can move forward in a North Carolina state court. The move came because Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that the non-resident plaintiffs, the relatives of the killed Iraqis, would not be able to sue in U.S. federal court for wrongs occurring outside of the U.S. This civil action in state court is the last chance for the Iraqi families to find closure for a terrible tragedy.

In September, 2007, military contractors working for Blackwater, now called Xe, opened fire in Nisoor Square in Baghdad. The military contractors say they were reacting to an attack. An Iraqi government investigation and a separate FBI investigation, however, found the contractors were probably unprovoked. Facing criminal charges in the U.S., one of the six contractors struck a deal with prosecutors to testify against the others. Despite video evidence and the testimony of the contractor, the case was thrown outbecause of other evidentiary problems involving testimony taken from the other contractors.

To the Iraqis who lost their family members, this must be an exercise in frustration and pain. The proceedings so far have been plagued with jurisdictional and evidentiary issues that have obscured any concept of substantive justice. If the United States can’t deliver some remedy to the alleged the victims, then it raises questions about the effectiveness of our courts to function in an increasingly global environment.

Will the injustice of the situation give fodder to insurgent groups who will in turn increase attacks on the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq? One of the primary purposes of tort law is to keep people from taking the law into their own hands. While this is normally an academic debate in the U.S., the consequences of this civil suit could be very real. Procedural complications, like the dismissal of the criminal case and the most recent delay of the civil suit, won’t translate well.

The worst case scenario is that the family members of the Iraqi victims won’t get their day in court. But it’s not only about justice for those who have died.  If we’ve reached a point where U.S. citizens contracting with the U.S. military can allegedly kill 14 unarmed people and avoid any liability, not because of a justification or a defense on the merits, but simply because we lack the judicial infrastructure and political will, then it’s a sad day for our country, and a sad day for humanity.

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