NORFOLK, Va. – Two former defense contractors were fueled by alcohol and rage the night they killed two Afghan nationals and injured another on the streets of Kabul, prosecutors claimed during opening statements of the their trial on Wednesday.
Their attorneys countered that Justin H. Cannon, 28, and Christopher Drotleff, 30, believed they were under attack on a dark, dangerous highway when they opened fire the night of May 5, 2009.
Cannon, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Drotleff, of Virginia Beach, face murder, assault and weapons charges that could send them to prison for life. Their trial began Wednesday in U.S. District Court and is expected to last two to three weeks.
The men were in Afghanistan to provide weapons training to the Afghan National Army as contractors with Paravant, a subsidiary of Blackwater Worldwide. North Carolina-based Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, has settled numerous federal lawsuits alleging that illegal activity by the company led to the deaths of dozens of Iraqis.
Prosecutors said the pair were "a disaster waiting to happen" that day, drinking for several hours after two of their superiors were fired before disobeying a direct order and heading out to drive two Afghan interpreters and another man to a taxi stand. They were on a road known for attacks on Americans.
"They were drinking. They were driving. They were armed and they were out of control," said Robert McGovern, a Department of Justice attorney.
Both sides agree that the men left their camp to drive two Afghan interpreters and another man to a taxi stand late that night, that the second SUV in their convoy wrecked, and that the men shot at a small, gray Toyota that sped from the crash scene.
Prosecutors said the SUV wrecked because it was driving too fast on the unlit four-lane road, that the driver swerved to miss a vehicle and turned onto its side. Defense attorneys said Cannon and Drotleff believed that a car that had gotten between them and the lead SUV bumped it, causing it to wreck on purpose.
When a similar car approached the wreck site driving on the wrong side of the road, Cannon and Drotleff believed they were under attack, the men's attorneys said.
"Will the evidence show that they got out of their car in a drunk homicidal rage and shot the first Afghani they saw? No," said Drotleff's attorney, Lawrence Woodward.
"There's not going to be any evidence that Mr. Drotleff acted on anything but fear, legitimate fear," he said.
Prosecutors claim instead that the victims were headed to their village after a day working in their flower wholesale business followed by dinner, and that they were driving on the shoulder of the road simply as a shortcut — a common occurrence along that road. They say the contractors stopped the car, then told it to go.
As it fled, Cannon and Drotleff fired about 30 rounds — Cannon with an AK47 and Drotleff with a 9mm pistol — hitting both men in the car and a bystander who was walking his dog with a friend. One man in the car and the man on the street died from gunshot wounds.
"They were not soldiers and they were not on a mission," McGovern said. "They were contractors who were making their own rules that night."
McGovern claimed the men returned to the scene and then made up the story about the suspected attacker.
Defense attorneys argued the men brought their injured co-workers and the interpreters back to their camp and then returned to the scene to recover a weapon, body armor and important documents left behind.
Larry Dash, one of Cannon's attorneys, stressed to the jury that the men were alone and in an area where troops have been fighting a "nameless, faceless, merciless" enemy since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They weren't properly trained, he said, and they were scared.
"He used the same force that night that any reasonably objective person living in a war zone would have used," Dash said of Cannon.
Prosecutors argue Cannon and Drotleff were the ones to be feared.
"Afghanistan is a dangerous place, there is no dispute as to that," McGovern said. "But that night, the evidence will show, that Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff were responsible for that danger."
Prosecutors will continue their case on Thursday, including bringing the bullet-riddled Toyota to the courthouse.