- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) — A key prosecution witness in the case of a Marine officer accused of killing two Iraqi detainees acknowledged yesterday that the defendant had stripped him of a unit leadership role days before the shootings.

Sgt. Daniel Coburn testified that 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano forced him to take on a radio operator’s duties after the lieutenant found part of his squad relaxing near abandoned buildings that hadn’t been properly secured. Lt. Pantano then elevated a lower-ranking Marine to take Sgt. Coburn’s job as squad leader.

Sgt. Coburn testified earlier this week that he was present in April 2004 when Lt. Pantano opened fire on the two men after ordering a search of a car they had driven away from a suspected hideout in Iraq.

Lt. Pantano has acknowledged shooting the two Iraqis, but he says he acted in self-defense when they moved toward him in a threatening manner.

The Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury, will determine whether Lt. Pantano, 33, will face a court-martial. If convicted of murder, he could get the death penalty.

The hearing ended yesterday evening. The investigating officer has been given at least a week to make his recommendations.

Sgt. Coburn abruptly left the stand Wednesday when he was told he was suspected of violating orders prohibiting him from giving interviews about the case. He said he wouldn’t return unless he was granted immunity from prosecution.

Yesterday, Sgt. Coburn was granted immunity, which was sought by defense attorneys so they could finish their cross-examination.

After retaking the stand, he acknowledged that he thought his last evaluation, written by Lt. Pantano and reviewed by two higher-ranking officers, was a “career-ender.” The evaluation was delivered after the slayings but before Lt. Pantano was charged. It recommended that the Marine Corps not promote or retain Sgt. Coburn and accused him of having “startlingly bad judgment.”

Sgt. Coburn said he hadn’t seen the evaluation before he began to question Lt. Pantano’s actions. He previously testified that he wrote a letter to his wife three days after the shootings so he could start a paper trail about the incident.

“If it was justified in my mind, sir, I believe I wouldn’t have questioned it,” Sgt. Coburn told defense lawyer Charles Gittins.

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