Iraq Murder Charges Dropped Against Marine

Published May 26, 2005

| Associated Press

A former Wall Street trader who rejoined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks will not be tried on murder charges for killing two suspected Iraqi insurgents, a Marine general decided Thursday.

The decision by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division based at Camp Lejeune, ends the prosecution of 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano (search), whom prosecutors accused of killing the men without justification.

"Down at the unit level, there was never a question about Ilario's conduct and whether or not he did the right thing," Charles Gittins, Pantano's civilian lawyer, said. "It was up in the higher echelons. The people removed from combat situations needed to put more trust in their officers rather than assuming they're guilty."

"That's exciting, isn't it," said Pantano's mother, Merry Pantano of New York, who said she hadn't yet spoken to her son about the decision. "Needless to say, we are quite ecstatic."

The two Iraqis were killed during an April 2004 search outside a suspected terrorist hideout in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Pantano contended he shot them in self-defense after the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him.

Prosecutors alleged Pantano intended to make an example of the men by shooting them 60 times and hanging a sign over their bodies — "No better friend, no worse enemy," a Marine slogan. While citing self-defense as his motive, Pantano did not deny hanging the sign or shooting the men repeatedly.

An Article 32 hearing (search), the military equivalent of a grand jury session, was held in April. In a report dated May 12, the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark Winn, had recommended that the murder charges be dropped.

While finding some problems with Pantano's behavior, Winn concluded that one witness' accusation that Pantano shot the detainees while they were kneeling with their backs to him was not supported by other testimony or evidence.

Witnesses testified the sergeant who was Pantano's main accuser was a weak Marine who was bitter about Pantano removing him from a leadership role within the platoon.

More than a half-dozen Marines who served with Pantano in Iraq praised him in testimony, saying he was an able leader who remained cool in combat and was amiable with Iraqis.

Pantano, 33, is now helping to train troops at Camp Lejeune, but his attorney said he hopes the decision will clear the way for the Marine to return to a combat unit.

"I think (the decision) demonstrates that Ilario acted honorably in combat and the suggestion that he didn't that tarnished his reputation was unjustified," Gittins said. "I'm pleased for Ilario and his family because the nightmare is over."

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