CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – A key witness against a Marine officer accused of murdering two Iraqi civilians abruptly left the stand after he was accused of giving interviews about the case when he was ordered not to.
Marine Sgt. Daniel Coburn (search) was testifying Wednesday against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano (search) when the investigating officer, Maj. Mark E. Winn, told him he was suspected of violating orders from superior officers.
Before leaving the courtroom, Coburn was read his rights and requested a lawyer.
Defense lawyers had complained Coburn had given interviews to ABC News, the New York Daily News and New York magazine even after being ordered not to do so.
"I knew that this was going to happen," defense attorney Charles Gittins said after the hearing. "I've been lying in wait for that for weeks."
Coburn's departure interrupted an Article 32 hearing (search) to determine whether Pantano should face a court-martial in the April 2004 shooting deaths of two men being searched outside a suspected terrorist hideout in Iraq.
Prosecutors say the shootings were murders. Pantano, a 33-year-old former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks, has said he acted in self-defense, believing the men were about to attack him.
Earlier, Coburn testified he was present when Pantano opened fire on the men after ordering a search of a car they had driven from the suspected hideout.
He said Pantano was agitated because a superior officer had ordered him to release the men when nothing was found in initial searches of their car.
Ordered to scan the nearby area for threats, Coburn said he was looking away from the men when he heard shots.
"I was kind of confused. He was still firing," he said of the defendant. "I was trying to figure out when it was going to stop."
Defense lawyers aggressively cross-examined Coburn about the interviews he has given. Coburn said he had been told he was allowed to defend his character.
Defense lawyer Charles Gittins asked why, then, had he described Pantano as "one of those thespian-type people" in a recent New York magazine story.
Coburn responded that he did not remember saying any of the things he was quoted as saying in the story.
Earlier, Navy corpsman George "Doc" Gobles, who was present during the shooting, testified that he found it strange that Pantano ordered the Iraqi men to search the car again after initial searches turned up nothing.
Asked by a prosecutor if he believed the Iraqis' actions merited a self-defense shooting, Gobles said: "Myself, I didn't see anything."
Under cross-examination by a defense lawyer, Gobles said he felt Pantano was a strong leader.
"I just felt a sense of security when a situation arose, I knew he would be able to take care of it," Gobles said. "I felt the safest with this platoon, more than any other platoon in our company, more than anything because of Lt. Pantano and his leadership."
A Marine counterintelligence expert identified in court only as Sgt. M testified he believed the detainees were insurgents who lied during his brief interrogation of them about having weapons in the home they had been seen leaving. Soldiers found three AK-47 assault rifles, mortar tubes and stakes used to prop them up during a search. They also discovered several passports and IDs with names that didn't match up, as well as literature supporting Saddam Hussein (search) and Usama bin Laden (search).
He said he recommended Pantano take the men to a military base for additional questioning and had no reason to believe Pantano intended to release them.
The hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, will help determine whether Pantano will face a court-martial. If convicted of murder, Pantano could face the death penalty.