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Marines advised to drop charges
An investigating officer has recommended that the Marine Corps drop murder charges against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, who fatally shot two Iraqi insurgents a year ago during a raid on a hideout in the “Triangle of Death.”
The 16-page report from Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn labels as “extremely suspect” the prosecution’s chief witness, Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, whom Lt. Pantano had removed as a 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 report, a copy of which was obtained yesterday 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.
“There is only one eyewitness to events that precipitated the shooting, and that is 2nd Lt. Pantano,” he wrote in the report, dated Thursday.
Col. Winn’s decision follows a five-day pretrial hearing last month at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Lt. Pantano’s home base. The role of Col. Winn, like Lt. Pantano an infantry officer, was to conduct the hearing and decide whether a court-martial is warranted.
Defense attorney Charles Gittins argued during the Article 32 hearing that Lt. Pantano fired in self-defense after the two captured Iraqis moved toward him and ignored his warning, in Arabic, to stop. The two were unarmed.
Col. Winn recommended to Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, 2nd Marine Division commander, that all criminal charges be dropped, including murder and destruction of the Iraqis’ vehicle. The colonel also proposed that Lt. Pantano face administrative punishment for firing too many rounds at the two men.
“Throughout this case, 2nd Lt. Pantano has been consistent with his account of what happened at the vehicle,” Col. Winn wrote. “There has been no eyewitness produced that can refute 2nd Lt. Pantano’s version of what transpired at the vehicle.”
The case drew national attention because the Marine Corps 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 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.
Gen. Huck, who is now leading troops in Operation Matador in northwestern Iraq, can accept Col. Winn’s recommendations or overrule them and order a court-martial of Lt. Pantano.
“Based on the thoroughness and degree of detail that the investigating officer has offered,” Mr. Gittins said in an interview yesterday, “the convening authority [Gen. Huck] should accept that recommendation to withdraw and dismiss all charges.”
Lt. Pantano, the married father of two, declined to comment. He did not testify at the hearing, but had submitted a sworn statement to investigators.
In an exclusive interview with The Times earlier this year, Lt. Pantano said that he fired at the two insurgents only because he thought his life was in danger.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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