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For Marine, a rush to judgment and a belated vindication

Forensics debunked Iraq murder charge

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As William C. Rodriguez inspected the badly decomposed bodies of two Iraqis, he was troubled by the large crowd of observers in the military's national morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Mr. Rodriguez, a renowned forensic anthropologist, had been called in to settle the most sensational murder case to come out of the years-long Iraq War.

The defendant, Ilario Pantano, had abandoned a comfortable life on Manhattan's Upper West Side after the Sept. 11 attacks and persuaded the Marine Corps to induct him, at age 31, to help fight the war on terrorism.

But the war turned into a courtroom struggle for his own freedom.

Lt. Pantano fatally shot two insurgents in Iraq's so-called "Triangle of Death" during a raid on an insurgent hideout in 2004. He said he fired as they rushed toward him. A disgruntled sergeant said he shot them in the back.

At the Dover morgue a year later, Mr. Rodriguez was troubled by all the murmuring of "guilty" he heard from investigators as he began to scrutinize the skeletons of Ali Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil.

He also wondered why the Marine Corps lodged premeditated murder charges against Lt. Pantano without benefit of an autopsy of the two dead men — the chore he was now performing after the officer endured a grueling pretrial hearing.

"I think there was a rush to judgment," Mr. Rodriguez, who retired last month, told The Washington Times.

"In a case like this, if I was charged with something, I would insist that the forensic evidence be looked at before I would be found guilty. They were looking at really going after him, making an example of him.

"People were kind of second-guessing the soldier in the field in a wartime situation. That to me, personally, upset me for people try to second-guess a soldier who's in the field facing danger every day, not knowing who is their friend or foe."

Mr. Rodriguez is taking the unusual step for a military medical examiner of going public in his criticism. He wrote a letter to Mr. Pantano in April, telling him how for years he had felt bitterness over how the Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) treated him.

"I openly expressed on numerous occasions to my colleagues in the office, including a NCIS agent assigned to our office, that I found it unconscionable to bring charges against you with simple hearsay," he wrote.

"I informed the NCIS agent and others in the office that the remains of the two deceased Iraqis should be exhumed and examined, as that is the only way one can scientifically prove what happened."

He wrote about the day he examined shattered bone and bullet residue to try to determine where Lt. Pantano's shots entered the bodies.

"When the remains arrived, I didn't expect the large crowds of people to [be] present at the mortuary," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Most were NCIS agents and various representatives of the Marines.

"Prior to the exams, there was much discussion concerning the case, talk of court-martial, prosecution and being guilty. The image that came to my mind ... was that of a lynch mob: 'Let's make an example of him.' "

Charles Gittins, the civilian lawyer who represented Mr. Pantano, said it is unusual for a military medical examiner to take on the high command.

"The medical examiner's letter underscores the fact that [the] government proceeded to murder charges and the hearing without doing their homework," he said. "For the medical examiner to contact Ilario Pantano demonstrates a concern the doctor had for the political ramifications for the case."

The remains arrived at Dover at a critical time in the case.

On May 12, 2005, a Marine hearing officer recommended that the Corps drop the murder charges. He said Mr. Pantano's chief accuser was disgruntled over being demoted within the platoon and repeatedly changed his story.

No autopsy reports were submitted into evidence. Mr. Gittins said he was told that it was too dangerous for Navy investigators to try to exhume the bodies.

After the hearing verdict jolted and embarrassed the high command, things changed. The military won approval from the wives and village elders and dug up the remains.

If the examinations showed they indeed had been shot in the backs, the Marine general overseeing the case could cite the results as a reason to overrule the hearing officer and send Mr. Pantano to a court-martial.

"I don't think it was to exonerate Ilario," Mr. Gittins said. "I think they did the autopsies to implicate Ilario because we had blown up the hearing. The purpose of the autopsies was to get inculpatory evidence, not exculpatory evidence."

On May 24, 2005, in Dover, Mr. Rodriguez, who had viewed the mass slaughter at the Pentagon after Sept. 11 and seen Saddam Hussein's mass graves in Iraq, had been called on for his knowledge of skeletal remains and what they can tell about how someone died. He began at about 8 a.m.

The bones told the first story.

"Examination of the bones such as the ribs revealed fracturing patterns indicating that they had been struck by a bullet entering the front of the body," he told The Times. "As the bone fractures, it does in a predictable manner, based on the external force placed upon it. ... A similar example would be if you drive a sharp spike through a piece of wood. The opposite side of the wood, where the spike exits the wood, you have a hole with outward beveling and splinters facing outward as well."

The bullets told a second story. Shells leave telltale copper fragments. This residue over time oxidizes, forming a blue-green discoloration.

"This, along with microfragments of the cooper jacket and bullet fragments on the anterior surface of the bone, corroborate the defect and fracture pattern exhibited by the bones, clearly indicating that the bullets struck the front of the bodies," Mr. Rodriguez said.

Mr. Rodriguez said the investigators left him little time to absorb his findings and write a report after finishing the exam at 2 p.m. They wanted it right away. When it was complete, the report went straight to the Pentagon.

Two days later, Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Huck announced that he was dropping all charges, citing the autopsy report among other evidence.

Science proved Mr. Pantano had been telling the truth. If only the Marine Corps had insisted on an autopsy before bringing charges, the volunteer Marine would have been spared the financial expense and emotional wear.

Mr. Pantano quickly resigned his commission and started a new life in North Carolina with his wife and two sons. He ran for the House of Representatives in 2010 as a Republican and lost to a popular conservative Democrat. He plans to run again in 2012.

A paperback edition of his memoir, "Warlord: Broken by War, Saved by Grace," was released this week, complete with Mr. Rodriguez's letter.

Mr. Pantano said his political enemies in North Carolina have used the murder charges, even though dismissed, to smear him on various Web pages.

"The letter from Dr. Rodriguez explaining his scientific determination of my innocence finally puts my case to rest," he told The Times.

"His letter is the ultimate proof to the world of politically motivated skeptics that have relentlessly attacked me because my unapologetic Americanism stands in defiance to their world of liberal victimization.

"My case was a political football in 2004, and it continues to be so today as I take a stand in defense of conservative values."

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