By Bill Sizemore
A second former Blackwater contractor was sentenced to prison for involuntary manslaughter Monday in the 2009 shooting death of a civilian in Afghanistan.
Justin Cannon of Corpus Christi, Texas, was sentenced to 30 months by U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar.
A Virginia Beach man, Christopher Drotleff, received a 37-month sentence earlier this month for his actions in the same incident.
The two were charged with murder and convicted of the lesser charge in March after an earlier trial ended in a hung jury. They are the first contractors for the Moyock, N.C.-based security company now known as Xe Services to get prison time for killing a civilian in a war zone.
Rejecting defense attorneys’ plea for a lesser punishment, Doumar said the sentence was meant to send a message – especially to Xe.
“They have a responsibility to hire individuals who they feel are capable of following orders and not going off on some tear,” he said.
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Doumar said he was unmoved by the defendants’ argument that their behavior should be excused because they were operating under dangerous conditions in a war zone.
“They tried to paint their victims as aggressors, and they weren’t aggressors,” the judge said. “They were just victims.”
Cannon and Drotleff were working for a Blackwater subsidiary providing weapons training to the Afghan army under a Defense Department subcontract.
The victim, Romal Mohammad Naiem, was a passenger in a Toyota Corolla that approached the scene after a two-vehicle Blackwater convoy was involved in a traffic accident in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on May 5, 2009.
The two contractors fired some 30 rounds of ammunition into the rear of the Corolla as it drove away from the scene, according to testimony – Drotleff with a 9 mm pistol and Cannon with an AK-47 assault rifle.
Their attorneys argued that they feared for their lives and fired in self-defense.
A second Afghan civilian, who was walking along the road with a friend and a dog, was also killed in the incident, and the driver of the Corolla suffered disabling injuries. Drotleff and Cannon were acquitted of charges related to the pedestrian’s death and the driver’s injuries.
Cannon’s sentence is within the recommended range according to federal sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors argued against any sentence reduction, saying Cannon behaved recklessly, failed to report the incident promptly and told an Afghan interpreter to lie about his alleged drinking earlier in the evening.
Cannon came to court asking for concern and compassion, “but he offered none of that to his victims,” said Robert McGovern, one of the prosecutors.
They also cited his military record. Cannon, 29, was discharged from the Army in 2005 after being absent without leave and testing positive for cocaine use, according to court papers.
Federal public defender Larry Dash, one of Cannon’s attorneys, said Cannon has been declared 80 percent disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury resulting from his military service.
“Justin Cannon was placed in a situation that maybe was out of his league,” Dash said. “Maybe Blackwater hired some people they shouldn’t have hired. But we can’t undo their mistakes.”
Unlike Drotleff, who made an emotional appeal for leniency at his sentencing, Cannon made no statement.
His nearly nine months of pretrial detention will count against his sentence. He remains free on bond pending an appeal.
Four more former Blackwater contractors face manslaughter charges stemming from a 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.