The Raven 23 Project: Dustin Heard among the U.S. vets seeking support
Dustin Heard and his brothers need a miracle.
Born and raised in Olney, the decorated U.S. Marine is fighting to be exonerated of war crimes in a 2007 ambush and shootout with Iraqi insurgents that killed 14 Iraqis and injured 17 others.
He lost appeals to overturn the 2014 conviction, but could see his 30-year prison sentence drastically reduced at a resentencing hearing in Washington D.C. next month.
At the time of the incident in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Heard, 38, was working as private military contractor for Blackwater Worldwide of Moyock, North Carolina.
His parents, Stacey and Lawana Heard and brother Dylan Heard of Olney are planning to attend the sentencing hearing, which was initially set for Aug. 14 but was postponed. The new hearing date has not been announced.
“We are hoping for a happier ending,” Stacey Heard said. “We would love to have the judge come back in and say, ‘Time served and go back with your loved ones’.”
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who handed down a sentence that an appeals court described as “cruel and unusual punishment,” will resentence Heard, Paul Slough of Keller, Texas, and Evan Liberty of Rochester, New Hampshire. The fourth Blackwater defendant, Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tennessee, will be sentenced on Aug. 14 on a murder conviction.
The resentencing is a last shot at freedom for Heard and the men he calls his “brothers” in a case that a growing number of observers say should never have been tried.
The investigation and trials were dogged by accusations that prosecutors hid evidence and bullied witnesses, and by the revelation last year that the lead Iraqi investigator may have ties to the insurgency.
“Hovering over these proceedings is this terrible fact: All four Americans face convictions after an Iraqi-led investigation,” David French, an Iraqi veteran, former military prosecutor and New Republic columnist wrote on May 28. “(E)ach of the Raven 23 defendants has suffered repeated violations of his constitutional rights.”
President Trump is reported to be considering a presidential pardon for the Blackwater men as the nation re-evaluates its treatment of veterans accused of committing crimes in Iraq.
The 11-minute ambush of the Blackwater convoy, call sign Raven 23, happened on Sept. 16, 2007, as tribal violence in Iraq was reaching its peak. An average of 200 attacks occurred each day across Iraq in 2007, many catching Iraqi civilians and American personnel in the crossfire.
Although a grand jury indicted the Blackwater contractors on manslaughter and attempted manslaughter charges in the civilian deaths, a federal judge dismissed the case in 2009, touching off an international crisis.
“We are hoping for a happier ending.”
Chronicled in a 12-part podcast series, “Raven 23: Presumption of Guilt” By Gina Keating
The Iraq government threatened to eject Blackwater, which provided crucial security services for American diplomats in Iraq, if U.S. prosecutors did not take the case to trial, according to U.S. State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks.
Iraqi investigators and federal prosecutors claimed that the Blackwater guards, all former U.S. military combat veterans, panicked and began shooting in the crowded noontime square without provocation.
But evidence presented at trial showed that the Raven 23 convoy of four armored trucks and nineteen men came under fire by insurgents, some dressed as Iraqi police, as they cleared the traffic circle for an incoming convoy rescuing U.S. diplomat from a car bomb attack.
During the gun battle, a white Kia sedan matching the description of a suspected car bomb rolled into Nisour Square despite several warnings to stop. The Blackwater team killed the driver, a 21-year-old medical student and his physician mother, mistaking them for suicide bombers.
Although Slough admitted multiple times to shooting the driver -- admissions that are corroborated by testimony from every eyewitness to the shootings as well as physical evidence -- prosecutors charged Slatten in his death, claiming the former sniper for the 82nd Army Airborne had premeditated the killing in retribution for the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Prosecutors filed a murder charge against Slatten after dropping him from the case and missing a deadline, called the statute of limitations, to file new manslaughter charges against him. There is no statute of limitations for murder charges.
The government then tried Slatten for murder two more times, even after FBI agents told the driver’s father that Slough shot his son, and ballistics evidence showed that the gun port Slatten was using was facing the wrong direction for him to make the shot.
A polygraph exam administered by a former FBI polygraph examiner also showed that Slatten was truthful when he denied shooting the driver or the white Kia.
The U.S. government spent twelve years and held three separate trials to obtain convictions against Heard, Slough, Liberty, and Slatten. Each man refused multiple offers to plead guilty and testify against the others in exchange for reduced sentences.
A fifth Blackwater defendant, Jeremy Ridgeway, took the plea deal and testified that the convoy was not shot at -- contradicting several previous statements he made immediately after the incident.
Witness testimony showed that it was Ridgeway who fired wildly into the white Kia sedan and a second vehicle as the convoy exited Nisour Square. Ridgeway served a year in prison.
Dustin Heard is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis, five hours from his children in Maryville, Tennessee and a long day’s drive from Stacey and Lawana Heard.
Visits mean money for gas and hotels, and the possibility of a prison lockdown will mean that the Heards will turn around and go home without seeing Dustin.
They pay into his inmate account every month so he can email, make phone calls home and buy nutritious food and necessaries from the commissary. Dustin earns money by making handbags, wallets and keychains to help support his children, Hannah, 13, and Quinn, 8.
Money for lawyers ran out long ago, well into the government’s 12-year prosecution, and his lawyers are now working for free.
Dustin is not allowed to communicate with Slough, Liberty or Slatten. He considers himself and his brothers political prisoners whose freedom was taken to further the U.S. government’s foreign policy agenda.
To support his bid for a presidential pardon, download this letter, sign it and send to President Trump. The letter is available here: http://www.supportraven23.com/howtohelp
To support the families of Raven 23, shop for merchandise or make a donation here: http://www.supportraven23.com/donate-buy-gear
The plight of the four men and their families is chronicled in a 12-part podcast series, “Raven 23: Presumption of Guilt.” The episodes will be available next week on all major podcast platforms, and at www.thinkagain.me. (Full disclosure: The author of this article wrote the podcast series).