- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

Exclusive

An investigating officer has recommended that the Marine Corps drop murder charges against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, who shot to death two Iraqi insurgents a year ago during a raid on an insurgent hideout in the “Triangle of Death.”

The 16-page report from Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn castigates as unreliable the prosecution’s chief witness, Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, whom Lt. Pantano had removed as squad leader weeks before the April 15, 2004 shooting.

“The government was not able to produce credible evidence or testimony that the killings were premeditated,” Col. Winn wrote in his May 12 report, a copy of which was obtained today by The Washington Times.

“I think now [Sgt. Coburn] is in a position where he has told his story so many times, in so many versions that he cannot keep his facts straight anymore,” Col. Winn wrote of the chief witness.

Col. Winn’s decision follows a five-day pretrial hearing last month at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Lt. Pantano’s home base. His role is to conduct the hearing and decide whether a court-martial is warranted.

At the Article 32 hearing, defense attorney Charles Gittins argued that Lt. Pantano fired in self-defense after two captured Iraqis moved toward him and ignored his warning, in Arabic, to stop. The two were unarmed.

The case has drawn national attention because the Marines charged Lt. Pantano, 33, with offenses that could bring the death penalty. Critics said the Corps was, in effect, second-guessing the officer at a time of heightened violence in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad, where Iraqi insurgents were killing Marines with some regularity.

Lt. Pantano also boasts a storybook life: After serving in the Marines as an enlisted man and graduating from New York University, he embarked on careers on Wall Street and then as a TV producer. But he gave up a comfortable Manhattan lifestyle and talked his way back into the Marine Corps at 31 to fight terrorists after the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda.

Col. Winn recommended to Maj. Gen. Richard Huck that all criminal charges be dropped, including murder and destruction of the Iraqis’ vehicle.

Col. Winn recommended that Lt. Pantano face administration punishment for firing too many rounds at the two men.

Gen. Huck can accept the recommendations or overrule them and order a court-martial of Lt. Pantano.

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