Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Marine Corps has issued what seems to be conflicting statements on the legal status of an officer who fatally shot two Iraqis, leading his attorney to contend commanders are split on the decision to charge him with premeditated murder in the combat deaths.

Last week, the Corps initially announced that 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano faced unspecified charges in the shooting deaths. Lt. Pantano’s civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, told reporters his client faced two murder charges.

But later, spokesman Maj. Matt Morgan, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Lt. Pantano is based, said the officer had not been charged.

This came as a surprise to Mr. Gittins, who said he has a copy of the official charge sheet signed by a prosecuting judge advocate that was handed to his client Feb. 1. On the sheet, it clearly states the Marine Corps has charged the 33-year-old officer with two counts of murder.

The Corps stands by how it has handled public relations in the criminal case of Lt. Pantano.

“I think it is because they are embarrassed by the fact they have charged him with premeditated murder,” Mr. Gittins said yesterday. “They are looking for a way out.”

Mr. Gittins said Lt. Pantano was acting in self-defense in April 2004 when he shot two Iraqi insurgents. Leading a Marine fast-reaction platoon, Lt. Pantano went to a suspected hide-out in the town Mahmudiyah near Baghdad and found a cache of weapons.

The insurgents, who had tried to escape in a sport utility vehicle, came at Lt. Pantano. He ordered them to stop in Arabic, and when they did not, he shot them with numerous volleys from his M-16, Mr. Gittins said.

The Marine Corps has been the target of much criticism for charging Lt. Pantano.

“I’m confident that there is disagreement among Marine Corps commanders as to whether he should be charged,” said Mr. Gittins, who believes the Corps is trying to dissuade reporters from writing stories.

On Saturday, Mr. Gittins sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, the commanding general of Lt. Pantano’s division, accusing the Corps of putting out inaccurate information.

“If … Maj. Morgan’s statements were not a mistake,” Mr. Gittins wrote, “I am writing to request that he be relieved of his duties and appropriately disciplined, as his statements, which clearly were official in his capacity as Marine Corps spokesperson, were knowingly false and made for the purposes of misleading members of the press to believe that my client has not actually been charged with any crimes.”

But Maj. Morgan said yesterday he is abiding by the Manual for Courts-Martial and that the manual does not consider charges official until an investigating officer refers them. That would not happen in this case until a pretrial Article 32 hearing is conducted.

“Although we refer to them as charges, what they are are formal allegations and they do not amount to an indictment,” Maj. Morgan said. “We feel it’s misleading to call him charged, because what it does is jumps too far ahead of the process.”

Asked about the criticism of the case, Maj. Morgan said: “I think that any Marine has to appreciate the fact the American public’s inclination is to defend the individual Marine. But there is a due process here, and the American public needs that process to take place.”

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