Prosecutors unsealed a 35-count indictment against the five guards Monday for a 2007 shooting in Baghdad. The guards surrendered in Utah, where they will argue the case should be tried.
The Justice Department charged the men with manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using a machine gun in a crime of violence. The latter charge carries a 30-year mandatory prison sentence.
A sixth guard for the U.S. contractor admitted in a plea deal to killing at least one Iraqi in the shooting. His guilty plea, likewise, was unsealed Monday.
"The government alleges in the documents unsealed today that at least 34 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured without justification or provocation by these Blackwater security guards," national security prosecutor Pat Rowan said. Blackwater protects U.S. State Department personnel.
Witnesses said the heavily armed U.S. contractors opened fire unprovoked at a crowded intersection. Blackwater, the largest security contractor in Iraq, says its guards were ambushed by insurgents while responding to a car bombing.
"Prosecutors allege that the men shot and killed Iraqis 'upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion' - that's the language in the indictment," writes CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "But it also tells us what the defense is likely to be - that this was an accident triggered by scared young guards who were in over their heads in Iraq."
"We think it's pure and simple a case of self-defense," Paul Cassell, a Utah attorney on the defense team, said Monday as the guards were being booked. "Tragically people did die."
Hassan Jaber was wounded that day - shot in the arm and back as he tried to escape, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer from Baghdad. A year later, he says that today's arrests are a step in the right direction - but not justice. He says there were more than five guards firing that day.
Jaber, like other wounded victims, got $7,500 compensation from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, which he used to pay for medical care. But, Palmer reports, his body is still full of shrapnel.
Though the case has already been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington, attorneys want the case moved to Utah, where they would presumably find a more conservative jury pool and one more likely to support the Iraq war.
An afternoon court hearing was scheduled on whether to release the guards. Defense attorneys were filing court documents challenging the Justice Department's authority to prosecute the case. The law is murky on whether contractors can be charged in U.S. courts for crimes committed overseas.
The guards face the prospect of 30-year mandatory prison terms under the anti-machine gun law passed during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic.
The indicted guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
The sixth guard was identified as Jeremy Ridgeway.
The case is complicated by the circumstances involving the Iraq war, which could affect legal strategy.
"The judge is going to have to be very careful not to allow this trial to become a trial about the larger U.S. role in Iraq," writes Cohen "I think defense attorneys would want to go in that direction and prosecutors of course want to separate out this event from all the other security issues in and around the Green Zone in Baghdad."
The shooting strained relations between the U.S. and Baghdad. The fledgling Iraqi government wanted Blackwater expelled from the country. It also sought the right to prosecute the men in Iraqi courts.
"The killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians. Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in," said Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old electrician who said his 78-year-old father, Ibrahim Abid, died in the shooting. "We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting will not bring my father to life, but we will have peace in our minds and hearts."
Defense attorneys accused the Justice Department of bowing to Iraqi pressure.
"We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi government," said defense attorney Steven McCool, who represents Ball.
Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater is the largest security contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards for diplomats. Since last year's shooting, the company has been a flash point in the debate over how heavily the U.S. relies on contractors in war zones.