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Blackwater suit can go forward

A Wake County judge gave the go-ahead Monday for a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of four men who were killed, and whose bodies were publicly burned and hung, in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens' decision means the families of the murdered contractors can start pressing Blackwater Security Services for documents and testimony about what led to the massacre shown on televisions and in newspapers around the world.

The lawsuit was one of the first in the nation to be filed against a military contractor for death on the battlefield in Iraq, where the United States has used more private contractors than in any previous war.

Since the lawsuit was filed in Wake Superior Court in January 2005, the Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater had a small army of lawyers bottling up the lawsuit in state and federal courts.

"We can now go forward and finally get more information on this tragedy that should have never occurred in the first place," said David Kirby of Raleigh, one of the lawyers for the families. Kirby said that Blackwater has answered no questions and provided no documents.

The families argued that Blackwater sent the four contractors into Iraq's most dangerous region shorthanded, without a map and without the armor, heavy weapons and intelligence that Blackwater promised in its contracts. Insurgents ambushed Jerry Zovko, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Wesley Batalona on March 31, 2004, while they escorted a truck convoy of food supplies. A mob beat and burned the men in front of television cameras, then lashed the scorched remains of two of them to a bridge.

Drawing on talent from at least five law firms, Blackwater's lawyers have fought and lost from federal court in Raleigh to the federal appeals court in Richmond to the U.S. Supreme Court; Chief Justice John Roberts on Oct. 24 denied Blackwater's request to put the case on hold while Blackwater prepares further appeals.

Michael Socarras, a lawyer for Blackwater, said the company has hired former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. A former federal judge, Starr is known as the special prosecutor whose investigation led to President Clinton's impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones scandals.

Socarras also repeated arguments Blackwater had made in federal courts:

* Blackwater was on a military operation, and civilian judges can't rule on questions of military conduct on the battlefield;

* The contractors had waived their right to sue when they signed up with Blackwater;

* The contractors' sole remedy are payments from a federal workers' compensation plan known as the Defense Base Act, under which the families have been receiving benefits for 2 1/2 years.

Stephens quietly drummed his pen on the bench for a short while before saying he would not go against the rulings of so many federal judges.

"As a state trial judge, I don't know a lot about federal law. I don't know a lot about federal jurisdiction. I don't know a lot about federal jurisprudence," Stephens said. "The case belongs to us. ... It's mine, ours, frankly, if we want it or not."

Joseph Schmitz, Blackwater's general counsel and a former inspector general at the Pentagon, declined to comment afterward.

Dan Callahan, a Long Beach, Calif., lawyer for the families, said he was eager to begin collecting the contracts, e-mail messages, reports and other documents that will form the spine of the case.

"This case was filed nearly two years ago," Callahan said. "Documents may be lost, witnesses' memories may deteriorate."

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