Friday, May 27, 2005

The Marine Corps dropped all charges yesterday against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, whom the Corps had accused of premeditated murder for shooting two Iraqi insurgents operating in the Triangle of Death south of Baghdad last year.

The decision by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, Lt. Pantano’s commanding officer, ends one of the most traumatic criminal cases in recent Marine Corps history.

Talk-radio hosts nationwide had come to the combat officer’s aid, as had retired Marines and donors to a defense fund set up by his mother on the Web.

In an e-mail to The Washington Times, Lt. Pantano said, “My family and I are grateful to our community in Wilmington [N.C.], to our friends, our families and to all of the Americans that have stood up to be counted when the chips were down.”

“As we approach this Memorial Day, thankful for so much, we will not forget those that have gone before and the families who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Semper Fidelis — we will always be faithful,” he wrote, signing off with the Marine Corps motto.

Lt. Pantano gave up his Manhattan lifestyle as a TV producer to re-enter the Corps after the September 11 attacks and fight in Iraq. He was considered a stellar platoon leader by his men and superiors. But the 33-year-old officer found himself back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., facing the possibility of the death penalty for a shooting in Iraq’s dangerous al Anbar Province, where Marines were dying every day at the hands of insurgents.

That “nightmare,” as Lt. Pantano has called it, is now over.

Charles Gittins, his civilian defense attorney, declined to comment on the officer’s future.

“We’re elated that the process intended by Congress to avoid trial on baseless charges worked in this case,” Mr. Gittins said. “However, it would have been better if a real investigation was done before the charges were preferred. Don’t rely on a disgruntled sergeant who had been demoted. Nobody ever asked those questions.”

Gen. Huck’s decision came two weeks after Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn, the case’s investigating officer, recommended to the general that murder and related charges be dropped instead of proceeding to a court-martial.

Col. Winn, who conducted a five-day open hearing at Camp Lejeune, concluded, “The government was unable to produce credible evidence or testimony that the killings were premeditated.” Lt. Pantano said he fired in self-defense after two Iraqis rushed him.

Col. Winn singled out for criticism the key witness on which the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Marine prosecutors based much of their case.

The witness, Sgt. Daniel Coburn, testified that Lt. Pantano shot the two Iraqis in the back.

But Sgt. Coburn acknowledged on the witness stand that he did not see the shots being fired. Other platoon witnesses told of how Lt. Pantano had removed Sgt. Coburn as a squad leader for incompetence weeks before the April 15, 2004, shooting. Sgt. Coburn also had received a negative fitness report from Lt. Pantano.

“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.”

In a new twist, a Marine Corps statement yesterday announcing the decision disclosed for the first time that autopsies on the two Iraqis helped Gen. Huck make his ruling.

The two men’s bodies had not been exhumed by the time the pre-trial hearing was held in April because fighting in al Anbar had made the environment too dangerous to remove them.

Second Lt. Barry Edwards, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said Navy investigators arranged with family members to recover the bodies before the hearing and conducted the exhumation after Col. Winn’s report was completed.

The autopsies were completed last week at Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland and they supported Lt. Pantano’s statement that he shot the men as they came at him.

“The initial findings of the autopsies did not support the allegation that 2nd Lt. Pantano committed premeditated murder,” Lt. Edwards said. “Rather, the initial findings corroborated 2nd Lt. Pantano’s version of events.”

In another boost for the officer, Gen. Huck overruled Col. Winn’s recommendation that Lt. Pantano receive administrative punishment for firing too many shots at the Iraqis.

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