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Federal prosecutors investigating the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians have narrowed their focus on as few as three Blackwater Worldwide bodyguards and have given others immunity for cooperating in the case, The Associated Press has learned.
New information about the deadly Sept. 16 incident, which has strained relations between the U.S. and Iraq, reflects progress by the government to prosecute Blackwater guards for the shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square.
A final decision on whether to prosecute the guards — and how many — may still be months away. But two weeks into a federal grand jury investigation, people close to the case told AP that authorities have focused the number who could face charges to about three of the dozen or more guards on the security detail.
Despite the progress, the people who discussed the case noted concerns about testimony given by the four Blackwater guards who have so far appeared in front of the secret panel. Details were discussed on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The concerns stem, in part at least, from the fact that one defense attorney and law firm represent as many as 10 guards, raising worries that their stories could be coordinated.
Conflicts arise when lawyers represent clients whose interests might differ, said Mark H. Tuohey, a former prosecutor who now represents companies in white-collar investigations. When one client implicates another or when one client gets immunity and another doesn't, Tuohey said, the issue gets murky.
And then, Tuohey said, there's the collaboration issue: "Are you getting people's stories together?"
"That's an integrity issue and certainly lawyers, former prosecutors, people who do this kind of work are sensitive to that," he said. "This issue doesn't rise and fall on perception. It rises and falls on whether there's real conflict or potential for a problem."
So far, defense attorney James Sweeney, a patent lawyer from the Indianapolis law firm Barnes and Thornburg, has accompanied two guards to the closed-door grand jury hearings — even though he has never handled criminal cases in federal court.
Sweeney, a Marine pilot who helped lead the first Gulf War combat missions, has experience in military courts. Sweeney assisted in the 1999 court-martial of a Marine whose jet clipped a gondola cable in Italy, killing 20 people. He said there is nothing improper about his firm's representation of multiple Blackwater guards.
"Clearly we wouldn't be doing it if there was a problem, both from our standpoint and the standpoint of the court," Sweeney said in an interview Friday. "The flip side is, if you had separate lawyers, would they do anything we aren't?"
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company was paying Sweeney and white-collar crime defense attorney Larry Mackey, to represent at least some of the guards. Mackey, another partner at the Indianapolis firm, is a former federal prosecutor who helped lead the government's case against Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.
In an e-mailed response to questions Friday, Tyrrell said companies often cover legal expenses for employees whose jobs put them in situations that result in needing a lawyer.
"We agreed to make B&T lawyers available to those who desired to exercise their right to have access to counsel in connection with this investigation," Tyrrell said. "Blackwater asked James Sweeney and Larry Mackey to go to Baghdad to meet with the individuals in question so they could determine whether they were comfortable retaining them as their lawyers. A number of them were."
Tyrrell would not say how many of the guards the two lawyers are representing, nor how the Indianapolis firm was selected other than to note its "combined experience."