Published March 11, 2011
NORFOLK, Va. – Two former Blackwater contractors were found guilty on Friday of involuntary manslaughter in the May 2009 shooting death of an unarmed Afghan civilian in Kabul, but were acquitted of all other charges related to the shootings of two others.
A federal jury found Justin H. Cannon of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Christopher Drotleff of Virginia Beach not guilty of murder and weapons charges that could have resulted in life sentences. They also were acquitted in the death of a second unarmed civilian who was killed and of assaulting a third person injured during the shooting at a dark intersection near the scene of an accident.
Drotleff cried as a series of not guilty verdicts were read while Cannon stood silently.
Their first trial in September ended in a hung jury and jurors in this case could be heard arguing behind closed doors since they received their instructions Wednesday morning.
The men now face a maximum sentence of eight years in prison and will be sentenced June 14. Both men were released until sentencing, although Drotleff was required to post a $10,000 bond over prosecutors' objections. U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar had previously found that Drotleff would be a danger to society if released while awaiting trial.
"We're happy our client is being released at this point. We felt he should've been acquitted on all charges," said Lawrence H. Woodward Jr., one of Drotleff's attorneys.
The trial focused on whether Drotleff, 29, and Cannon, 27, feared for their lives the night of the shooting, when the vehicle in front of them that was escorting their translators home got into a bad accident.
Defense attorneys said they opened up fire on a Toyota Corolla driven by Fareed Haji Ahmad because they believed it had caused the original accident and it had started approaching them at a high speed afterward.
Cannon and Drotleff fired about 30 rounds — Cannon with an AK-47 rifle and Drotleff with a 9mm pistol — toward the vehicle. Their attorneys said they acted in self defense and that any reasonable person would have done the same thing on a dangerous road in a war-torn nation.
Prosecutors said it was a truck that caused the lead vehicle to get into an accident, that the Corolla wasn't a threat and Ahmad only approached to help the accident victims. They said Drotleff and Cannon acted irrationally out of anger and frustration on a day their boss had been fired and that they had been drinking.
They noted that all the bullet holes in the vehicle were in the rear of the vehicle, which was shown to jurors during the trial and during deliberations.
The man walking his dog, Rahib Mirza Mohammad, was unintentionally hit. The jury didn't find Drotleff or Cannon guilty any charges related to his death.
The involuntary manslaughter verdict was issued in the death of Romal Mohammad Naiem, the passenger in the Corolla.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Friday.
Blackwater, based in North Carolina, has since changed its name to Xe Corp.