WASHINGTON – A new inquiry into the fatal shooting of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman during combat in Afghanistan will examine possible criminal negligence by fellow soldiers involved in the friendly-fire incident, according to Pentagon officials.
Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday while there is no evidence as yet of a crime involving the former football star's death, investigators will want to find out if any of Tillman's fellow soldiers were "firing a weapon when they should not have been."
The criminal investigation demanded by Defense Department's inspector general could have a wide range of conclusions from a finding that warrants no further action or a written reprimand to a military court martial on charges of negligent homicide.
For the Tillman family, the fifth formal probe into the shooting could put to rest unanswered questions about the Army Ranger's death along a canyon road near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in April 2004.
It also provides an opportunity to delve further into allegations by family members of a cover-up during the previous investigations.
"The prior reviews had a certain sense of cover-ups than an honest full-fledged review," Dan Goure, a defense analyst at the research firm Lexington Institute, said Sunday. "It's essentially to raise it a notch from a standard review to a now criminal review. When you have people taking testimony under oath, it makes it harder to cover things."
The Army first reported that enemy fire killed Tillman. Later, military officials acknowledged that he had been shot during a confused confrontation between his unit and other U.S. troops. The military's handling of the case has angered the Tillman family.
Pace, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," promised Tillman's family on Sunday that investigators will examine all the facts in the criminal investigation. The Defense Department's inspector general determined it was an additional step that needed to be taken even though there is no evidence of criminal activity, Pace said.
A Pentagon official told The Associated Press on Saturday that a criminal investigation would focus on possible charges of negligent homicide. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the new investigation had not formally begun.
Pace said that earlier investigations "did not specifically look at whether or not there was criminal activity" involved in the friendly-fire incident. For example, he continued, "was that fire by the friendly forces fire that should have been going on or was someone potentially firing a weapon when they should not have been?"
The Army Criminal Investigation Command will prepare a report on the investigation's findings. After that, a decision on a course of action, which may also include nonjudicial punishment such as a written reprimand, would be made by a unit commander. The commander also has the power to convene a court martial, in consultation with a staff judge advocate attorney, the official said.
Tillman, 27, played football for the Arizona Cardinals but left the NFL to join the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He died on April 22, 2004, when struck by gunfire during a firefight along a canyon road near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Army said at the time that the barrage of bullets came from enemy fire..
A report by the Army later found that troops with Tillman knew at the time that friendly fire had killed the football star. Officers destroyed critical evidence and concealed the truth from Tillman's brother, also an Army Ranger, who was nearby, the report found.
More than three weeks after a memorial service in San Jose, Calif., the Army announced on May 29, 2004, that friendly fire rather than an enemy encounter had caused Tillman's death. However, even at the time of the memorial top Army officials were aware that the investigation showed the death had been caused by an act of "gross negligence," the report said.
Tillman's parents have been highly critical of the Army for its handling of questions about their son's death. Reached Saturday night by The Washington Post, Patrick Tillman Sr. remained skeptical.
"I think it's another step," Tillman said. "But if you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you're going to get?"
Finding out what happened and releasing all the facts is important for the Army as well as the Tillman family, said George Joulwan, a retired four-star Army general and former NATO commander.
"It think it's better late than never," Joulwan said.