- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

Second Lt. Ilario Pantano announced his resignation from the Marine Corps yesterday, a week after he was cleared of charges of murdering two Iraqi insurgents in the “triangle of death” south of Baghdad.

The Marine Corps had planned to send the married, 33-year-old officer back to Iraq to rejoin the 2nd Marine Division in the volatile Anbar Province.

But his attorney, Charles Gittins, said that after a grueling past year that included a criminal investigation, charges of murder and then being cleared by an investigative officer, Lt. Pantano wants to begin a new chapter in his life.

Lt. Pantano made the announcement at an American Legion fish fry in Wilmington, N.C. He paid special tribute to Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, who championed the officer’s defense in Washington.

The officer sent an e-mail to The Washington Times with his prepared remarks and said he planned to present the congressman his Marine Corps sword.

“Day and night you appealed to any that would listen,” Lt. Pantano said of Mr. Jones. “You were tireless in your defense of me, and for that I will be eternally grateful. … First I present to you my innocence, known to you and many, many others from the outset, but proven finally by our justice system after a yearlong investigation and prosecution. Congressman Jones, you weren’t just brave to defend me. You were right.”

Lt. Pantano is giving up a commission that had become one of the many symbols of patriotic duty in America. The Corps does not usually accept 31-year-old officer candidates, but the Manhattan native was determined to rejoin the Corps after al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks.

He talked his way back in, excelled at infantry training and won command of a 35-man platoon that went to Iraq last year. Lt. Pantano had served as a Marine enlisted man in the 1991 Gulf war.

The Corps had charged Lt. Pantano with two counts of murder that could have brought the death penalty if convicted at a court-martial. He told investigators he shot the two Iraqi men in self-defense after a raid on an insurgent hide-out.

Marine Corps prosecutors based much of their case on the testimony of Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, whom Lt. Pantano had replaced as a squad leader for incompetence weeks before the shooting.

The sergeant said Lt. Pantano shot the two Iraqis in the back, but Sgt. Coburn acknowledged under cross-examination by Mr. Gittins that he did not see the shots fired. A hearing officer’s report called the sergeant an unreliable witness.

Lt. Pantano’s superiors testified he was a dedicated Marine who went to the trouble of teaching his men local Iraqi culture before they arrived in the country.

Autopsies of the two Iraqis, conducted a year after the April 2004 shootings, supported Lt. Pantano’s version of events, the Marine Corps said. Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, 2nd Marine Division commander, accepted the hearing officer’s recommendation and dropped all charges.

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