MARYVILLE, Tenn. — Dustin Heard doesn’t like to hunt anymore.
After a presidential pardon, six years and two months in federal prison, three years as a Blackwater military contractor and two tours as a Marine before that – he said the thrill is gone.
“There’s no joy in it, taking an animal’s life that’s just out there,” he said.
To some, however, Heard remains a killer—with a name infamous around the world.
A jury found him guilty in connection with the 2007 deaths of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians killed in an unprovoked attack, according to the Department of Justice. The shooting broke out in the middle of a busy roundabout in downtown Baghdad.
The attack killed 10 men, two women and two boys ages 9 and 11, prosecutors said. A federal judge found Heard and three other American contractors were firing wildly into cars and shot people as they ran away.
The four disputed the government’s version of events and maintained their innocence through trial, appeal, re-sentencing and imprisonment. Just before Christmas 2020, President Donald Trump granted the four men a presidential pardon.
The pardon was given in the final days of Trump’s presidency, despite opposition from some national representatives and human rights groups.
In a press release announcing the pardon, President Trump said some evidence was not appropriately presented at trial. He also said prosecutors relied on a questionable Iraqi investigator, but he presented no evidence.
“I wish I didn’t have to have one in the beginning,” Heard said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m honored that he did this. But I wish the circumstances weren’t what it was where I needed to be looked at by a president of the United States.”
Months after returning to Maryville and surprising his two young children with his homecoming, Heard now wants to say thank you to the East Tennesseans who stood by him and his family.
“They’ve showed support, they’ve done everything they can,” he said. “It’s a truly humbling experience.”
To the people who still think he’s a murderer, he insists he’s not–but says he’s not here to change their minds.
“This isn’t Knoxville, this is Baghdad”
The year 2007 was on track to be the deadliest yet for U.S. troops and personnel in Iraq--and on Sept. 16, Heard feared it was about to get worse.
His unit of contractors, called Raven 23, was dispatched to assist another Blackwater team after a car bomb exploded near their convoy in central Baghdad.
When Raven 23 pulled into a busy Nisour Square around noon, Heard said the team came under attack.
Heard said he was hit by a possible tracer round that ricocheted off his vehicle and burned the inside of his elbow.
“It was a gun battle. I mean, it was a two-sided gun battle,” he insisted.
Prosecutors disagree with his version of events. They alleged the four contractors began to fire “without provocation,” maiming and murdering civilians who never returned home to their own families.
The government brought charges of first-degree murder against Nicholas Slatten of Sparta, Tenn. and manslaughter charges against the others, including Heard.
“I believe wholeheartedly that we didn’t go out and act out of malice,” Heard said.
In the heat of the 10-minute battle, he said he refrained from using a thermite grenade and didn’t fire his machine gun as the team pulled out of the square because he couldn’t make out a clear target.
“I can’t tell you what the next man did. I just know I speak for myself personally. I did not act out of malice and I truly believe none of my other teammates did,” he said. “When you look into how many runs that we did all over Baghdad compared to how many shoots that were actually taking place, we didn’t go out and just do things out of malice.”
As his team pulled out of the square, Heard said he had no idea the encounter would make international headlines. He called it a minor scrape compared to the other incidents he and his team were involved in.
“Don’t get me wrong, anytime somebody loses their life is tragic,” he said. “But that was a very short engagement for us compared to what we were going through.”
Six years and two months
The legal process stretched more than a decade. Heard was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison on half a dozen counts of manslaughter.
He served his time first in Memphis and later Atlanta—where his ex-wife brought their children to visit him from Maryville.
Community members at home in Maryville rallied for his release, a journalist started a podcast to examine the evidence in the case and FOX News contributors urged President Trump to consider a pardon.
“We’ve watched the children long to see their dad and be with their dad,” Fairview United Methodist Church Pastor Mickey Rainwater said.
Heard said he thinks about the families of the children who died in the attack, but disputed the Department of Justice's assertation the contractors were responsible for their deaths.
Just before Christmas, on December 22, the pardon came. Heard was called into the warden's office at United States Penitentiary Atlanta.
“They say ‘Hey, you’re leaving today.’ And I said ‘Under what circumstances?’” Heard recalled.
Heard said the warden pulled a pardon out from a stack of papers and handed it to him. It had another man’s name on it—Heard hoped it wasn't a mistake.
It wasn’t. Soon Heard had the right pardon in hand.
“It was official. Full and unconditional. I have every bit of my rights back,” Heard said. “I can vote. I can buy a gun. I can do everything you can.”
He drove all night back to Maryville and woke up his kids to surprise them.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, a parade welcomed him back to his hometown of Olney, Texas.
“The police, the ambulance, the fire truck—everybody escorted me down Main Street. It was amazing.”
But his release was not welcomed by everyone.
"How are these criminals released after they killed 17 innocent people?" Hussein Saheb Nasser, 35, told NBC News by telephone from his home in Baghdad on Wednesday. "On what basis did Trump depend on to release them? Let us assume that I travel to America and kill 17 American citizens. Are they going to release me?"
Nasser's younger brother, Mahdi Saheb Nasser, was 22 and working as a taxi driver when he was killed in the attack in the Baghdad square.
“I’d rather be on the lake”
Heard doesn’t regret driving into Nisour Square that day—even with the number of people killed and the years of legal troubles that resulted from it.
“We had a team in trouble and my job was if somebody got in trouble to go help them” he said. "I was taken away time that I can never get back, but it’s also opened my eyes to the time I have left with my kids and family."
Heard agreed to sit for an interview with the intention of thanking the people of East Tennessee for their support.
“That has helped my family out more than they understand,” he said.
To those who believe he deserved to stay in prison, he points toward podcasts and articles that he believes proves his squad innocent.
“That's what I went to war for is for people to have their own opinion. So I mean, you're going to like me, you're gonna hate me. I get it,” he said.
Heard now wants to make a run at becoming a professional fisherman and going on the competition circuit. He said spending time out on the lake helps him cope with the trauma of war and block the rest of the world out.
“I’ve never sought glory or fame or fortune as far as being in the public eye,” he said. “But, you know, here I am.”