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A Decision in the Triple Canopy Case

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One of the great concerns that rises with everyone who studies the world of private security contractors in Iraq is that murders, assaults and other serious crimes are being committed and no one is being held to account. A legal proceeding just concluded in Virginia which answers no questions, but leaves major questions hanging. The jury concludes that it is forced to do what its members consider an injustice; they are forced to do this by the judge’s instructions.

On Wednesday, a jury in Fairfax County, Virginia, found that major private security firm Triple Canopy, Inc. did not wrongfully terminate two of its employees after they reported that their supervisor made unprovoked and potentially lethal attacks on Iraqi civilians. The case stemmed from accusations by plaintiffs Charles Sheppard and Shane Schmidt – both of whom served in the US military – that their supervisor, Jacob Washbourne, shot at Iraqis driving peaceably on a highway near a Triple Canopy vehicle because he decided simply that he was “going to kill someone today [July 8, 2006],” the day before he was to leave Iraq.

While the case was specifically a wrongful termination suit against Triple Canopy, it became a potentially damning example of contractor irresponsibility in Iraq. The jury rendered no verdict as to whether an actual murder took place – despite the fact that had such actions taken place in the United States, they could easily have led to manslaughter or even felony murder charges. Rather, the main issue at trial was that Schmidt and Sheppard had failed to report the incident immediately after it took place. The plaintiffs argued that they were fired for reporting the incident; defense counsel argued that the plaintiffs were fired for delaying to report Washbourne’s acts, because the delay constituted a serious violation of company policy. But the jury felt that it needed to speak to greater issues of accountability for private military contractors:

“Although we find for [Triple Canopy],” jury forewoman Lea C. Overby wrote, “we strongly feel that its poor conduct, lack of standard reporting procedures, bad investigation methods and unfair double standards amongst employees should not be condoned.” Overby wrote that the jury instructions from Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher forced them to rule against Schmidt and Sheppard, but “we do not agree with Triple Canopy’s treatment of the plaintiffs.”

Patricia A. Smith, the attorney for Schmidt and Sheppard, said an appeal was likely after the jury’s note said the “jury instructions were obviously confusing.” She said that her clients would have violated Virginia law if they had not reported a crime to Triple Canopy and that the company “wanted to cover up that their supervisor committed multiple homicides.”

No determination was ever made that anyone was wounded or killed in either shooting.

Evan Magruder contributed to this post.

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