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United States v. Slatten

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 23, 2018



          Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is defendant Nicholas Slatten's motion in limine to exclude evidence of post-Kia shootings and victims. ECF No. 716. Mr. Slatten argues that the evidence should be excluded because it is irrelevant and unduly prejudicial. Upon consideration of the pleadings, the oral representations of both parties at the hearing on May 9, 2018, the relevant legal authorities, and the entire record in this case, the Court DENIES Mr. Slatten's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As this case has been summarized on numerous occasions-including recently by the Court of Appeals in United States v. Slatten, 865 F.3d 767, 810-11 (D.C. Cir. 2017)-the Court will only offer a brief outline of the factual and procedural background, with a focus on the facts most relevant to Mr. Slatten's motion in limine.

         Mr. Slatten and his former codefendants were security contractors for Blackwater Worldwide ("Blackwater") in 2007, at which time Blackwater provided security services to the U.S. State Department in Iraq. Mr. Slatten and his former codefendants were members of Raven 23, a Blackwater support team. On September 16, 2007, Raven 23 was called upon to assist in evacuating a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. In the course of that mission, the Raven 23 team attempted to "lock down" Nisur Square, a traffic circle in downtown Baghdad. In doing so, at least 32 Iraqi civilians were injured or killed.

         At the first trial, the government proved that Mr. Slatten fired the first shots that day at the head of the driver of the white Kia sedan, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia'y, who died as a result. The jury found Mr. Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, the sole charge filed against him at the first trial. The jury also found his codefendants guilty on separate manslaughter and attempted manslaughter charges for an additional 30 deceased or wounded victims. Mr. Slatten appealed and on August 4, 2017, the D.C. Circuit vacated his conviction, finding that the Court erred in not allowing Mr. Slatten to introduce hearsay statements by his codefendant in a separate trial. Slatten, 865 F.3d at 810-11. The government is now retrying Mr. Slatten on the same single-count Indictment for first-degree murder.


         While neither the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure nor the Federal Rules of Evidence expressly provide for motions in limine, the Court may allow such motions "pursuant to the district court's inherent authority to manage the course of trials." Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n. 4 (1984). Motions in limine are '"designed to narrow the evidentiary issues for trial and to eliminate unnecessary trial interruptions.'" Graves v. District of Columbia, 850 F.Supp.2d 6, 10 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ, 913 F.2d 1064, 1070 (3d Cir. 1990)). The Court has the "discretion to rule in limine or to await developments at trial before ruling." Graves v. District of Columbia, 850 F.Supp.2d 6, 11 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Stephen A. Saltzburg et al., FEDERAL RULES OF EVIDENCE MANUAL § 103.02[l3] (9th ed. 2006)). And "in some instances it is best to defer rulings until trial, [when] decisions can be better informed by the context, foundation, and relevance of the contested evidence within the framework of the trial as a whole." Casares v. Bernal, 790 F.Supp.2d 769, 775 (N.D.I11.2011) (citation omitted).


         Mr. Slatten seeks to exclude all evidence "relating to alleged shooting and victims in Nisur Square after the shooting of the white Kia." 14-cr-107, ECF No. 716 at 1. He does not articulate particular pieces of evidence within that category of evidence, but rather argues that none of it is relevant to the single charge against him. He further contends that even if the evidence has some probative value, that value is outweighed by the prejudicial effect it will have on the jury. The Court disagrees. The evidence is in fact probative and the Court is unwilling to say that every piece of evidence within the category of evidence that Mr. Slatten seeks to exclude will be unfairly prejudicial.

         A. Relevance

         Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, "evidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401. "Relevant evidence is admissible" unless the Constitution, federal statute, the Federal Rules of Evidence, or rules prescribed by the Supreme Court, provide otherwise. Fed.R.Evid. 402. According to Mr. Slatten, evidence that other members of Raven 23 shot other individuals in Nisur Square after the shooting of Mr. Al Rubia'y in the white Kia-the single count Mr. Slatten is charged with-is irrelevant to his case. The government offers three theories of relevance, which the Court will address in turn.

         First, the government contends that "certain post-Kia evidence is probative of Defendant's premeditation and motive." ECF No. 730 at 5. To satisfy its burden on the charge in this case, the government must present evidence to prove that Mr. Slatten acted with premeditation. "[T]he government must introduce facts which provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed not merely intentionally, in sustained frenzy or heat of passion, but with premeditation and deliberation." United States v. Peterson, 509 F.2d 408, 412 (D.C. Cir. 1974). A court can "entertain probative circumstantial evidence from which to infer premeditation and deliberation." Id. And proof of a defendant's motive "substantially reinforces the inference of premeditation and deliberation." Mills v. United States, 599 A.2d 775, 781 (D.C. 1991).

         Here, the government's theory is that "while traffic was at a standstill waiting for the Blackwater convoy to exit the Square, Slatten fired two shots from a sniper rifle into the Kia windshield, killing Al-Rubia'y instantly and setting into motion the day's horrific events." Slatten, 865 F.3d at 795. The government argues that Mr. Slatten's "motive for killing the Kia driver was, in part, to initiate the Raven 23 barrage that followed" and that the "[p]ost-Kia evidence about the subsequent onslaught of bullets and grenades is thus relevant evidence of Defendant's premeditation and deliberation." ECF No. 730 at 5. As the government did at the last trial, it plans to present evidence that Mr. Slatten disdained the Iraqi people, had a history of shooting Iraqis to instigate a broader conflict, and in fact encouraged other Blackwater members to engage in similar conduct. Moreover, the government will try and prove that once Mr. Slatten shot Mr. Al Rubia'y, he called attention to the subsequent ...

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