RALEIGH, N.C. – A former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks is now faced with the consequences of another choice — the split-second decision he made in a combat zone.
Defense attorneys for 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano (search) and military prosecutors agree that the Marine shot and killed two Iraqis last year in a search for a terrorist hideout. But they do not agree on circumstances surrounding the shootings.
Defense attorneys say Pantano was doing his job. Prosecutors say it was murder, and were expected to present their evidence at a preliminary hearing set to begin Tuesday at Camp Lejeune.
The case has stirred debate on whether troops should be second-guessed for decisions made in fleeting seconds of combat. A North Carolina congressman has urged President Bush to intervene and dismiss charges against the 33-year-old New Yorker.
Pantano also has become a popular subject for conservative radio hosts, and his mother, Merry, has started a Web site in his defense.
"This Web site has raised awareness, which is what we has hoped it would do," Merry Pantano said Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." She said supporters "do not understand how a warrior in combat can be charged with premeditated murder for self-defense for defending his men."
Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican, has said Pantano was doing nothing more than "defending the cause of freedom, democracy and liberty in his actions."
The Article 32 hearing (search), similar to a civilian grand jury hearing, is held to determine whether to recommend a court-martial or other punishment. An investigating officer will then make a recommendation to the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, who determines whether to proceed to trial or modify the charges.
If convicted of murder at a court-martial, Pantano could be sentenced to death. He has asked to waive the investigatory hearing and proceed straight to a court-martial.
A call to military defense attorney Maj. Phillip Stackhouse was not returned Monday afternoon. Base spokesman 2nd Lt. Barry Edwards declined to comment Monday.
The case stems from an April 15, 2004, incident in which Pantano's unit was ordered to search a house in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Marines stopped Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil as they tried to drive away.
According to charges, Pantano ordered other troops to remove the suspects' handcuffs and look away, then shot the pair in the back, vandalized their vehicle and hung a sign over their corpses bearing a Marine slogan: "No better friend, no worse enemy."
In a statement, Pantano told investigators the two men had their backs to him and continued talking to each other despite warnings to be quiet.
"After another time of telling them to be quiet, they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other. They did this simultaneously, while speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me and I decided to fire my M-16A4 service rifle in self-defense," the statement said.
Pantano was investigated and cleared at the field level last year and continued combat operations. But civilian defense lawyer Charles Gittins said that a disgruntled enlisted man complained after Pantano's unit returned to Camp Lejeune (search). A new probe led to the charge.
Pantano was raised in a rough New York City neighborhood but got a scholarship to an expensive prep school. After a stint in the Marines, he became a Wall Street energy trader and then an executive in a film company, earning a six-figure salary.