- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

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.

“Units were getting ambushed all over the place, including my own,” he said. “I was in fear of my life.”

On that April evening a year ago, Lt. Pantano led part of his Easy Company platoon to a house in the town of Mahmudiyah. Recently captured Iraqis had indicated it could be an insurgent hide-out.

Two Iraqis saw the Marines approach on foot, got in a car and took off. They stopped when the Marines fired warning shots. Inside the house Marines found AK-47s, mortar-sighting equipment, bomb-making ingredients and literature praising Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Lt. Pantano had the two Iraqis search their own car, as one of his men had done earlier. At this point, the officer said, the two turned and rushed toward him and he emptied two magazines of from his M-16 rifle.

Neither of the other two Americans present, Sgt. Coburn and Navy corpsman George Gobles, saw the initial shots fired. Sgt. Coburn did not immediately file a complaint, but later told a number of other Marines he thought the shooting was unjustified. Based on his complaints, an investigation ensued.

Sgt. Coburn testified the two men were shot in the back. There was no autopsy. Col. Winn’s report said the prosecution never established the two insurgents’ identities.

Mr. Gittins argued that back wounds seen in photographs of the two were exit wounds. Col. Winn wrote, “There was no credible evidence presented by the government that proved these men were not shot in the front.”

Col. Winn had some harsh language for Sgt. Coburn, labeling him “extremely suspect” and saying the enlisted man had a motive to harm Lt. Pantano. The officer had removed him as a squad leader and written potentially career-ending fitness reports.

“It is my opinion that Sgt. Coburn never really understood what had transpired during the shooting, and as time went by, he invented details to corroborate what he had built in his mind as what had happened,” Col. Winn wrote. “Sgt. Coburn does not tell one consistent story throughout this whole case.”

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