KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Families of two veterans are hoping the new year will bring new hope.
Kelli Heard and Reba Slatten left East Tennessee for Washington D.C. Monday to attend the appeal hearing for their loved ones, former Blackwater security contractors found guilty in a deadly Baghdad shooting.
In 2007, Kelli Heard’s husband, Dustin, and Reba Slatten’s son, Nicholas, worked as security guards for Blackwater in Iraq. In September 2007, they were involved in a shooting that left 14 civilians dead. The guards said they had come under attack, but witnesses said the guards opened fire without being provoked.
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Nickolas Slatten, a former Army Sergeant from Sparta, is serving a life sentence on a charge of first-degree murder. Dustin Heard, a former marine from Maryville, and two other men, Paul Slough and Evan Liberty, were found guilty of manslaughter and firearms charges carrying mandatory 30-year sentences.
In February 2016, the former guards appealed their convictions, saying a key witness against them had changed his testimony after the trial and that prosecutors lacked jurisdiction to even bring the case. Tuesday, attorneys and three appellate judges will begin discussions about the case in the United States Court of Appeals.
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“We’re giving justice one more time to prevail,” said Heard. “They’ve had the information for 30 days. They have their own questions that they’ll be asking. It will only last an hour… two hours tops… and then it’s another waiting game for us,” said Heard.
Heard said it has taken a lot of waiting and time. Soon after sentencing in 2015, the four veterans filed a motion for a new trial, but after months of waiting the judge ultimately denied it. The next step was appealing the decision.
“It could go on much, much longer. We’re just glad to hear this is our next big step and we’ll go on from here,” said Heard.
Families say no decision will be made tomorrow, but they are hoping to have answers within two to six months. Nicholas Slatten’s case is closed, so no family members will be allowed in the courtroom.
“We’re still fighting in the dark,” said Reba Slatten. “It’s hard to think we even have to be here at this point. This should have never happened to these men. They were just doing their job.”
While the process takes time, Heard said she won’t quite until her husband comes home. She is holding out hope that this year something will change.
“Our number one hope and our men’s best hope is the appeal. This is what will clear their names. We have a plan b… c… d… if the justice system fails us get again,” said Heard.
The two women said they understand that in the court of appeals very few cases get overturned. They’re hoping they will get a sense of where the judges stand on Tuesday.
No matter what happens, both families say they just want to get their loved ones home, whether it is through an appeal or a pardon.