The holidays are a special time for many of us. But for some, life events make them even sweeter. This holiday season we have a complicated story involving tragedy, a former soldier, accusations of murder, and a journey with an unexpected ending.
The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
Nick Slatten: This is a story about a man that went to war for his country and basically was sacrificed for politics.
To be sure, Nick Slatten’s version of his own story told here in his first television interview isn’t shared by everyone.
Slatten: My brothers and I, there was four of us total that were sacrificed.
Slatten is a decorated, former Army sniper. After two combat tours in Iraq, he was hired by a company called Blackwater to work on a U.S. rescue team in Iraq. It was code-named Raven 2-3. On September 16th, 2007, there was a terrorist suicide bombing attack on Americans and Raven 2-3 got called in to help.
Slatten: So we're tasked with going to extract them, and on the way to extract them, the Iraqi police opened fire on us. And so this was a normal thing. We had been in many engagements with Iraqi army and Iraqi police. One day they're a cop, the next day they're insurgent, so it just depends on which faction they're loyal to.
14 Iraqis including two young boys were shot and killed in the firefight. Slatten and the team insisted they’d been ambushed and acted in self-defense. Prosecutors and the FBI said the team opened fire on innocent civilians.
The relentless pursuit of criminal charges against Slatten and his teammates spanned three presidential administrations. They were charged, but the charges were dropped due to misconduct by prosecutors. Then they were re-charged, tried, and convicted in a joint trial. For three convicted of manslaughter, a judge later found their 30-year prison sentences to be excessive and threw them out. Ultimately their time was cut in half. Nick Slatten’s path was even more complicated.
Sharyl: How many trials did you have?
Originally charged with manslaughter, the time limit, or statute of limitations on that charge expired, and prosecutors levied a more serious charge: first degree murder. They alleged that Slatten fired the first shot that day. A jury found him guilty, but a judge tossed out the conviction on appeal because Slatten had been unfairly barred from telling the jury that someone else had admitted firing the first shot. Then trial number 2 ended in a hung jury.
Slatten insists his prosecution was politically-motivated with U.S. officials scapegoating Raven 2-3 as part of sensitive negotiations with Iraq. Meantime, he turned offers for deals for freedom, he says, in exchange for admitting guilt.
Slatten: The government offers me a deal for five years, which is essentially time served. I had almost served that amount of time. So basically they're saying ‘admit that you did wrong and you can just walk out the door.’ And I refused.
At trial number 3, the jury found Slatten guilty of first degree murder and he got a life sentence. An end to the court drama, but the beginning of a new chapter. This one started in May 2019 with what Slatten describes as a supernatural experience when he was locked down in his prison cell during a riot.
Slatten: And then immediately, I hear a voice. And it sounds like it's coming from the speaker box that's in the cell where you can push a button, a panic button basically if anything's happening. And it says, "Slatten, pack your stuff. You've got a presidential pardon." And so I'm like, "Man, I'm going crazy. I ain't had enough food. Something's wrong with me.” And so they finally let us out of our cells a few days after that. And I call my sister and she's like, "Have you talked to anybody?" I said, "No, I've been locked down. She said, ”Well, the New York Times reported that President Trump is considering pardoning soldiers accused of war crimes and it mentioned you by name." And that article was dated the exact day that I heard the voice. So I tell my sister, I said, "God told me I'm going to get pardoned." She's like, "Yeah, whatever, bro. You know you're going crazy."
From that day on, Slatten says, he felt a calm assurance that there would be a pardon. He started getting letters of support, including from a woman in his Tennessee hometown who believed him innocent. A year and a half later, three days before Christmas last year, the pardon came.
Slatten: And this little jail had tablets that you could rent. And one of the news feeds said we were pardoned.
Sharyl: You mean you just read it on a news feed?
Slatten: No, I read it on a note. One of the other prisoners slid a note under my door and I opened it up and it's like, "Four Blackwater contractors pardoned by President Trump." And so my buddy had a tablet in the cell. And I was like, "Look at this." And he was like, "That's you, man." He pulled it up and he's like, “Here.” My cell mate, he was pretty crazy. He made an announcement, they do that all the time in jail, he’s like, "Listen up!” And everybody gets quiet. He's like, "My man here just got pardoned by President Trump!” And so the prisoners started kicking the doors and yelling and stuff.
Sharyl: So how long from the time you got word that a pardon had come until you actually walked out free?
Slatten: It was like an hour and a half.
News Clip (December 2020): President Trump pardoned murderers.
News Clip (December 2020): Outrage that President Trump would pardon these four former Blackwater guards.
Sharyl: How did you feel when you heard, or maybe you just knew this, a lot of people were arguing when the pardon came that you guys didn't deserve it, that they were letting killers go free?
Slatten: So those were the people that never actually looked into our case, that never actually read the trial.
Slatten returned to his home here in Tennessee. And he says it wasn’t long before he began turning his attention to others.
Slatten: I started learning that there were other soldiers, sailors, and marines, and airmen in similar situations that basically were locked up for making a split-second decision in combat. And I always said that if the Lord saw fit to let me out, that I would fight for them. I believe that if our men and women go to war, we should have their back no matter what. They should never have to choose between a casket or a prison cell. And I saw that a lot over there. These young soldiers were afraid to engage because if they got it wrong, they would go to prison. And they got killed because of it. It's just crazy.
One of those he’s fighting for is Calvin Gibbs, who’s serving life in prison for three murders in Afghanistan.
And so what drew me to Staff Sergeant Gibbs' case was the fact that he refused to plead guilty, same as I did. So they offered him a deal, he wouldn't take it. He said, "I didn't murder anybody, I didn't execute anybody.” And so Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs is just one that I can hold up. I've talked to him. He's my friend. He's my brother. I love him. He's actually innocent. And he's serving a life sentence and nobody knows his name.
Sharyl: There are people who would argue what sets us apart is if we make a mistake, even in a split second decision, and civilians are killed, we hold ours accountable. That's what's special about this country and that that's important to do.
Nick Slatten: So I would say that those people have never been shot at. They've never seen their friends blown up by vehicle-borne IED or never seen a rocket come in. We got rocketed all the time. And it wasn't just combat soldiers that were getting hit. So it's like there's such this double standard that our soldiers are held up to this impossible standard of you're fighting an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform, it can be an eight year old boy to a 75 year old woman, so you never know who's going to blow you up. You never know who's going to shoot at you.
In the year since his release, Slatten has been making up for lost time. That hometown girl who wrote to him in prison? He married her. And today he claims the accusations, the three trials, the years in prison, all changed him for the better, helping heal a soldier who’d come back from war a broken man.
So God gave me a timeout so to speak. Did what any good dad would do. And thank God, President Trump stepped in and pardoned me because I was supposed to die in prison. I've been richly blessed. I’ve got a wife and a newborn daughter now, so things are good.
Sharyl (on-camera): Slatten is among those pressing for Congress to pass what they call post war amnesty for accused former soldiers who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.